Tuesday, June 16, 2009

multiethnic convention 2009 Chicago trip

June 12: 2009

Hello everyone. It's been quite a long day. I'll turn in fairly shortly at midnight Chicago time. I got up at around five this morning. The drive was quite a long one. We started at six in the morning and got in around four thirty our time or three thirty local time. I've set my watch backward to avoid any confusion but won't
bother with the netbook's clock. The drive was very pleasant as my companions were very much open to conversation. They're all quite deeply involved with the church and have a lot of experience with the wider picture of the challenges facing the larger reformed denomination as a whole.

I've met a whole lot of interesting people. Getting all the names straight will take more exposure to most of them than I've had yet. Everyone's been really helpful and kind. The keynote speech was quite well-delivered but the points made in it just struck me as dead obvious. It seems that there are more ethnic tensions even within the reformed denomination than I would have guessed. In the US, it seems that a substantial number of coloured people feel that they don't have a proper voice or influence on decisions which are made. It seems so strange to me that this and other similar feelings should exist today. I get the same frustrated feeling as when I think about the middle east or Ireland or Quebec. It has been obvious to me since childhood that the only fair way to approach people is from the assumption that they deserve equal respect until they prove otherwise on an individual basis. All the people I've met here and in my own church certainly seem to get this at least on the serf ice.

I think of all the great shows like Babylon 5, Star Trek TNG, Robin of Sherwood, Superfriends which demonstrate to all ages what a strength diversity is. There's so much powerful fiction out there which speaks to that issue that you'd think all of us would have just clued in by this stage.

It frustrates me that such a conference as I'm attending should even be necessary. The steps needed to fix things should already have happened. However, they clearly haven't. I keep thinking that there must be some sort of shortcut to making people realize the need to sort out their past hurts and move forward together as equals. It's just so damned obvious to me. Like the echo of my cane's tap off the wall of the building a short distance in front of me. One of my companions, Cicilya, was amazed that I could tell that it was there and couldn't seem to hear the echo. I know her ears would have picked it up just fine. She doesn't seem at all hard of hearing. I certainly needed training to master using those echo's for travelling more safely but the basics just always seemed about as clear to me as gravity. So does my approach to people in general. Would I have felt the same way if I could see? I'd like to think so. Realistically though, given all the quick judgements I hear sighted people make based solely on appearance, I have to wonder.
I guess it's all a matter of connecting the dots one person at a time. Recent events like having Mr. obama becoming the US president certainly have set the stage for the kind of transformation I can't help thinking should already have happened. It'll be extremely interesting keeping tabs on his term or terms in office.

June 13, 2009

It's early morning. I'm up and ready. We'll be going off to breakfast soon. Last night, I got involved in a very interesting conversation with a Navaho man named Mark. I'll be hearing more from him this morning I think. He had to go through a whole lot of soul-searching to reach his current desire to find ways to reconcile his own culture with the dominant white culture. It just staggered me that he actually had to go through what he did to reach that point. Hopefully, I'll learn a little more over the next couple of days about the underlying problems and perhaps get some ideas of how I can help other than to just keep on writing.

The morning cessions were quite interesting. However, the chairs put my legs at an angle too steep to take notes during them. We heard from an Arab Christian who was Muslim and he explained the basics of his former faith to us. I must confess to a bit of impatience here. I had learned all this in grade school, again in secondary school, and a third time in my Sociology class at university. It seemed preposterous that everyone else there hadn't gone through roughly the same before. I later asked about this and found that even in Canada, what you're taught seems to change drastically depending whether you're in an urban or rural area. This surprised me greatly. In the US, there's also apparently a lot less emphasis on learning about other cultures due to the melting pot approach it seems the majority of them favour..

**Communicating Across Cultures workshop:
Dr. Nelvia Brady
[Sounds a lot like the character Penny in Stranger Than Fiction with a dash less bite and a spoon full more friendliness..]
Note: If you haven't seen that movie yet, go grab the DVD. It's pulled me out of two episodes of cynical glumness brought on by separation from my wife and break-up with my ex-fiancee. Worth its weight in gold.

With communication comes conflict.
democratization invites conflict as globalization increases. Immigration is the trend of the future. One out of 3 North Americans speak a language other than English. 4.4 million school age children have English as a second language. 78.4 percent of US is Christian. People need to develop communication skills to deal with diversity.

Invitation received accidentally implied that coloured people were a discomfort. Think carefully about the words we use. Words are powerful.

Language, culture, disability are all invisible. Political alignment, religion are all under the serf ice.

Culture is learned behaviour. They are inherently logical. Culture can be visible or invisible. Indians believe in reincarnation and avoid stepping on insects. We see insect avoidance but don't see belief in reincarnation. Cultures can be low context or high context. Low context cultures depend less on environment and more on words to convey meaning. High context cultures communicate in spirals in their approach to things. Low context cultures proceed linearly. Cultures can be formal or informal. Time orientation can differ. North America views time as a commodity. Other cultures see time as unlimited. Individualism versus collective. Ethnocentrism also varies which is how cultures think they live in the only right way.

Stereotypes are preconceived ideas about other cultures. Personal space also can differ between cultures. Eye contact notions also differ.

things to know:

1. Know yourself and be conscious about your own culture. Everyone has culture.

2. The more we take time to understand each other, the better our understanding and communication will be.

Look at web site called

be careful using words which exclude. Treat others as they would have you treat them. We are responsible for making certain our meaning is understood. Avoid assumptions. Be patient. Be respectful of tradition, age or hierarchy. Ask for help or clarification. Be comfortable with silence. Remember to listen carefully.


Is there no way to orchestrate the universal alteration of how easily people can give and take offence? When I was married, I was constantly walking on eggshells trying desperately not to say anything which would be negatively misinterpreted by my wife. People get damned tired and resentful of having to go through that much effort in a relationship. I've spent hours undoing five seconds worth of accidental damage. I absolutely understand the need to put forth effort in this direction. However, isn't the opposite also the case? There has to be an effort not to take things in the worst possible way. Political correctness and the fear of accidentally giving offence has put up almost as many barriers to me as my blindness or inability to master routes to places easily. People are so afraid to say the wrong thing that they don't bother saying anything to me. If that collective guilt could be worked through so that people could address each other as individual people without all this fear, all our lives would be so much better. Would that not be worth some letting go of old grudges? I don't go around angry at sighted people as a whole. It's unfair. They aren't all responsible for the challenges I face. I can see how it's easier to get to know or hire someone whose abilities and world view you know since you largely share them. However, we could all become so much better if it were easier to cross the barriers and treat our differences as the assets they can be.

**Contextualising Worship
Mark Charles
[Sounds very much like Geordi La Forge, chief engineer from Star Trek TNG. His voice conveys a similar level of cheerful resolve.]

Mark grew up as mainly Dutch rather than Navaho. Grandparents were both Christian. Taken forcibly from homes and forced to adapt to western culture. Navaho father wasn't very connected to his heritage. Internalized and adopted Christianity more than most. Mark feels he had to live in two worlds. Studied how Navaho perception of time effected students from the reservation.

Western perception of time is linear. As you move along the line, you pass milestones. You cannot go back. Once something is past, there's no second chance. Therefore, there is a mid-life crisis. Life is organized by making a schedule. People are valued by how well the normative schedule is kept.

Navaho perception of time is circular. You still pass different events but if something is missed, there'll eventually be another opportunity. You work on something until it's done and move onto the next. It isn't offensive to show up late. It is offensive if an interaction is rushed and not allowed to come to a proper conclusion.

Most of the time, Contextualising worship is about what elements will be used in worship. Mark challenges churches to talk about how to think of time during worship. Being in balance is very important to living well as a Navaho. Ceremonies aren't scheduled. They happen when they're needed. Missionaries failed to translate the space of time into the Navaho. They used their western style of worship. A lot of the worship therefore didn't speak to the Navaho soul. Mark tried to create a space to take Navaho perceptions particularly of time into account. People weren't always present for the whole event and this didn't matter. The whole experience mattered. Intonation changes the meaning of words. Therefore, translating songs into Navaho doesn't work well. The medicine man knows how to sing the language while the missionary did not.

It is a sign of patience and honour to wait until moving forward isn't forced on people when it comes to Contextualising worship.

An important lesson is that Jesus loved and cared for people around him and made a point of spending time with the low in society. Mark and friend lived on street as homeless people for a weekend. Nothing to give an everything to learn. Were welcomed even when they informed the homeless people that it was an experiment and they were really students. Have to resist the temptation to withdraw when we encounter being marginalised. Mark describes never knowing quite were he fits and what the rules are. Doesn't want church to have to be interpreted by Navaho people. He wants people to be with the creator in their own way and know that he loves them for who they are. Wants his people to know that God can come to them where they are and bring relief. Once you can avoid being put in a box and communicate that you want a relationship, you force the other culture to have an actual dialog with you and have a chance to have a real impact. Continued relationship is very important so that stereotype of missionaries who come and then leave forever are broken down. Sees his people hurt by people who are sincerely trying to help.

I deeply empathize with Mark's sense of frustration and sadness as I share them to a somewhat lesser extent. There must be a way to connect the dots so that things don't go so wrongly so often. I guess that's what I'm trying to do with my autobiographical book and other writing. Mark's article was extremely well-written and perhaps he can do a similar thing for the Navaho and white people. That whole concept of circular time could do a world of good in the CRC and for all of us. Everyone, myself sometimes included, is in such a rush to get places, reach that next milestone, get something done.

I'm reminded of a story I heard once on the CBC radio show Ideas. An English anthropologist was studying a Native tribe largely by asking questions of the people and particularly of their chief. He expressed his appreciation to the chief for answering all his questions. The chief then asked whether he might ask some questions in return. The Englishman was amiable enough and proceeded to answer as best he could about his own people. At one point, the chief asked: "What is this god you seem to worship above all else? You tend to it every morning without fail. You never go anywhere without it. Before you do even minor things, you often consult it. The Englishman was quite startled to realize how much his custom of checking the time on his wristwatch was misinterpreted. You can thank Lester St. Clair, former host of Ideas for that bit of brain flotsam. While you're at it, thank God for fudging the odds so that I'd be bored enough to tune in all those years ago. While we're on the subject of time, I don't believe I've mentioned Rob's gift in that department. He doesn't wear a watch and hasn't for years. Despite this, he pretty much invariably knows quite precisely what time it is. He'll ask me the time and then guess, usually right down to the minute, while I open my watch lid and feel the hands to be just where he thought they'd be. The thing is, I don't think he even once looked down at the print numbers which I presume are still visible that accompany the tactile markings on the watch serf ice. It's absolutely uncanny. You'd think he was a child of Chronos as well as Christ.

It's nearly time to turn in now. I've just spent a little time taking out some extra carriage returns from my workshop notes. It seems that I haven't ditched that habit I picked up in university. Whenever sighted classmates asked me for my notes, I'd cheerfully give them a copy but would usually forget to warn them about my habit of tapping the enter key when not taking down points. They'd print them out and have huge gaps of blank lines to contend with. My apologies if I've left any here. In general, I'm quite happy with this netbook but I must confess that when you really get cracking with it, you notice the small reduction in your speed more. I tend to write in sentences and/or fragments of sentences so things got tight on occasion. Yes, that's a long-winded way of saying... I'm long winded. I've captured the bare bones here but there's no way of truly getting the impact of what each presenter achieved in the time they had without hearing their actual voices and presumably seeing them. There's a real friendly and sincere atmosphere here. Everyone is ready to learn new things and share observations. Even more than the actual content being conveyed, I found this aspect of my trip here most encouraging indeed. People are genuinely keen on getting to know each other and helping out. It's fascinating to get a glimpse at the larger picture in which this denomination who have been so supportive and welcoming of me operates. My perspective seems to have added something to the proceedings. I don't feel at all like I was just a proverbial fifth wheel. Quite the opposite in fact. It's been a damned long time since I felt truly a part of something larger than my own life. The results of my current projects have certainly helped people but they're kind of one-off packages. I put them out there and then move on to the next one presuming I'm not stymied by writer's block or some other damned thing. Blogging about an experience like this certainly helps with that as does all the new food for thought I've taken onboard from conversing with the other participants. It'll take a day or two once I'm home to truly digest it all.

I don't know how much of what I've learned here can be applied to my church as I know it. There are likely many aspects and are certainly many people there who I have yet to discover. Everything's still so wonderfully new. It's been very good getting to know the others who came from our church. I hope it's the start of something lasting. When it comes right down to it, I guess I've been hoping for much the same thing as Mark Charles and the Navaho seek from the rest of the world. A sense of place and friendship which truly lasts. Because I can't make eye contact and look for people, I need them to come to me and seek me out to get to know. There are few things more frustrating than having all kinds of things to share and nobody to share them with. At last, in this new church, I have a real sense of optimism that I'll find people interested in getting to know me as a friend, or they'll find me.

June 14 2009:

You'd think that this far away from home, I could escape being awakened by the same kind of birds which trouble my sleep in my own bedroom. I know they're completely different individual birds and are guiltless of waking me up in the past but come on! Oh! Alright then! I'll get up, dress, pack and start typing away. It's around five thirty local time. The birds got me up around half an hour ago. There's certainly a lot to reflect on during this tranquil stretch of linear time. I've taken so much onboard over the past while. So many different lives whose stories one only gets a brief glimpse of. So many good people out there who are on much the same quest as I am. I wish there was more time to talk with them and become better friends. Perhaps, for some of them, that'll actually happen.

Winamp has just picked out a splendid instrumental track I had no idea I had on the hard drive. Sometimes, when you gamble on a new artist and buy a few of their albums in mp3s, you strike sonic gold. Paul Lawler - Cerulean Skies has just caught me up in its soothing tones. Take that, you birds! Hah! If you're not more considerate of my slumber, next time, I'll drown your cheerful chirps out with something truly dastardly like Weird Al's Backstreet Boys parody song about Ebay! That did it. I feel so much better now.

I've certainly gained a stronger sense of hope here. That sense of frustration, of a simple truth of human equality being blatantly obvious to me but somehow not to too many others still hangs there like a cloud. So much offence is taken when none is intended. That's a tremendous part of the problem. Many people in the blind community have the same sort of "us and them" mentality about sighted people. I've never had any kind of sense of a general conspiracy or overarching plan too keep us from experiencing the so-called good life. It's never as simple as some sort of grand conspiracy. There are no arch-villains to track down. It's just a matter of enough people overcoming their preconceptions to truly start changing things. A matter of time, patience, and effort. A better time will ultimately arrive. My general sense of that has gotten stronger. Doubtless, that optimism will ruffle some of my more jaded friends a tad. I damned well like that delicious thought. Optimism ought to do that; make people back up and give each other a second more charitable thought before proceeding on with their lives. I wish there was a faster means of transmitting hope and optimism. Other than continuing to plod along with my smaller and larger writing projects, and eventually, perhaps Enchantment's Twilight as the game I still believe the overall story wants to be. It's such lonely work though.

I think that over time, I'll get a stronger sense of where I might be able to pitch in with the myriad efforts my denomination is engaged in. Everything's so new at the moment that it's hard to know where to direct my energy to do the most good. Due to a bit of mistiming, I got to hear what was an apparently historical election take place in the synod. However, until Rob explained it to me afterwards, I had no sense of that. It all sounded so procedural and orderly. You definitely got the sense that people of good conscience were hard at work but as a newcomer, that's honestly all I would have been left with had Rob not clued me in. There were a few things like that where you got the sense that things hadn't quite gone as the conference organizers planned. We were apparently supposed to be presented to the synod in some fashion while they were in session rather than overhear their voting. I don't exactly know what purpose that would ultimately have served. I believe that it was about feelings among people working on solving these problems that the church leadership wasn't fully appreciating the importance of that work. What they heard from Mr. Dykstra during his evening address to us was unfortunately a bit alarming. I certainly didn't walk away with any sense of whatever strategic plan might exist to address the deeply felt concerns of many attendees. He talked about possibly turning back the clock fifteen years. In my experience, it's actually a good thing that this is utterly impossible to do when it comes to things in which human beings are involved. You just don't end up with a system cleanly restored to a previous condition. The stakes here are huge in terms of human cost. I certainly wasn't left with a sense that this was Mr. Dykstra's preference. Unfortunately though, he left a sort of paternal impression I'm all too familiar with. The CNIB certainly has a history of coming up with things where you're left seriously questioning whether it was even possible that they bothered to consult some of the blind people they serve in Canada. That kind of thing, like pamphlets which leave sighted people with the impression that blind people are incapable of doing up their own seat belts, tends to aggravate a lot of us. All but the most extreme among us certainly appreciate the good things CNIB does but there are just way too many instances where a moment's thought could have avoided so much hurt. I sensed the same frustration here too. I have a strong sense that Mr. Dykstra is a very capable man doing his best to make some pretty difficult decisions in between these synods. It was quite obvious, even to this totally blind newcomer, that he feels like he carries the weight of the world. However, that tendency not to lay out all one's cards on the table, though doubtless necessary at times, always leaves a bad taste.

June 15: 2009

The drive home took quite a while. I basically went to sleep almost right away. The blasted birds were kind enough to give me a break so I didn't get up until nearly nine thirty. Basically, I've been working on these notes since then. Figured I'd get it done while it was all fairly fresh.

Sunday morning was fairly eventful. The service was quite good overall. What with the reverb and such, I found it hard to recognize the speakers. I'm pretty certain Esteban was the preacher but I could be wrong there. He sounded a whole lot like my high school principle. However, that slightly startling "That's not X, is it?" moment I experience when people sound like someone else doesn't apply so much to him. He simply had way more gruff basso striking power than dear old Mr. Forde could ever hope to conjure up. Lets just say I'm quite glad I remained on the good sides of both men. Whoever was leading the songs also had a notably impressive voice. I don't often conjure up images to go along with peoples' voices. He was a rare exception to that. As soon as I heard him, a Football player's uniform with all the padding which I had felt well over a decade ago sprang instantly to mind. He just sounded so energetic that you couldn't help imagining him tossing a hapless player onto the field between exhortations. You just can't judge people safely by voices. That's why I don't do it other than as an effort to remember a voice should it actually sound at all similar to others. For all I know, he's one of those wafer-thin people you could knock over with a sneeze.

After the service, things took a somewhat questionable turn. During the conference wrap-up when people had already begun to leave for lunch, we found out that a smaller group who were very concerned with Mr. Dykstra's speech the night before had gotten together and drafted a letter expressing their anger and worry about proposed changes being done without proper consultation. They wanted a vote on whether to send this letter or not. The timing was just terrible. This is the kind of thing where there should have been a time slot afforded for discussion of concerns among the whole group. In point of fact, I seemed to be asked to make the same sort of leap of trust which they were denying Mr. Dykstra. The tone of the letter was just too angry. I'm told that the Synod was composed of exclusively Dutch white men. As I heard the initial draft read out to everyone, I could just feel their defences going up. I didn't like the thought of that given the who knows how many hundreds of people a chain of events influenced by the letter could kick off. While I edited Audyssey Magazine and was an online community leader, I would insist on having a very good grasp of the factors before I made a decision. I kept all of the emails sent to everyone on the Audyssey list and could look back to see where and how problems rose. I had time to carefully consider how best to use what authority and influence was granted me. Not so in this case. Ultimately, when the vote was called, I stood. I did it because I felt that the Synod should know about this disappointment and discontent. Also, the recommendations sounded sensible enough. Frustration left to fester is never a good thing.

After the vote, Henrietta and Ciciliya came across people who were working on the lettre so that it better reflected the group's feelings of pain rather than anger. Both were able to make suggestions and left with the welcome assurance that the tone of the letter would be altered so it wasn't so confrontational. [Take the cheerful voice of Wilma Flintstone, add a deeper care-worn aspect and you've got a pretty good approximation of what Henrietta sounds like.] Throughout the weekend, she was quite up-beet and a wonderful resource of information and guidance. It seems that a number of us had similar concerns about the letter's tone. I think a few people went around working on the letter and getting our recommendations or consent. One of them found me at one point during lunch. I was therefore far more easy in my mind with the end result by the time lunch was over. I just hope it doesn't fall on unreceptive ears. Those delegates who I met certainly seem like very good and fair-minded men.

I close off this blog entry literally at the end of a whole day's reflection. It's midnight now. This morning, I have an interview with a professor from the University of Toronto who is researching how I use the Internet and how I determine what sources are trust-worthy. This afternoon is going to be entirely devoted to catching up on the thousand plus emails which will have accumulated in my absence. Most are from email lists which I like to keep tabs on. The delete button is absolutely priceless in those circumstances. One of these days, I'll create folders and rules to direct traffic more sensibly. I haven't been nearly as happy with my writing as I find myself now in a very long time. For that, in no small way, I have you members of Meadowvale CRC to deeply thank for that. God has put so much in place here for this denomination. This conference certainly provided me a very worth-while glimpse of the calibre of good character and range of perspectives we have to work with. I learned a great deal and have so much more to start piecing together. I'm going to start digging in to the denominational web site:
There's this Belhar Confession which I'd like to look over at last and a whole lot else besides. The next time I'm put in a position to vote, I'll hopefully have a bit of a better grasp on the forces and consequences at play. Besides, it certainly beets wrestling with writer's block.

In honour of Mr. Mark Charles, I thought that I'd try engaging with these reflections in a style which I hope he finds fully in keeping with the Navaho sense of time and quality of interaction. You have my complete current thoughts on what I've just experienced as fully captured as is possible. Any of you church members who might be a bit shy have something to read by which you can get to know a lot about me before coming up and saying hello. I don't bite. It is my hope that you and any other readers find this small compensation for the wonderful experience I've enjoyed a worthy one.

1 comment:

Dan Sal said...

Hey Michael, thanks for writing your response, in full, to the multi-ethnic conference. I appreciate your writing style. I'm not usually the kind of person who likes long blog posts, perhaps I have a little bit too much of the sighted-western way about me. However I thoroughly enjoyed every word you wrote. I think that because you're blind, you see much more than any other sighted person, and you certainly have the writing skills to share your insights. The Sunday sermon was led by Esteban, by the way. Keep up the good work.