Archive | April, 2012

Sudhir, Po & the Power of Juxtaposition

14 Apr

As I pore through the Po Bronson book I’ve assigned my service-learning students, I wonder how my students will connect to the people being profiled – if only because I have a hard time connecting myself.

Some of Bronson’s profile subjects have lived careers out of some other universe, breathing air so rarified, I’d suffocate in seconds. One, Choejor Dondup, gets a letter from the Dalai Lama, telling him his real name is Za Rinpoche – which translates to “The Dharma King.” Another, a Harvard MBA and Boston investment banker by the name of Don Linn, turns his business acumen to running his in-laws’ fish farm in Mississippi. A Duke graduate by the name of Carl Kurlander hit it big when, at age 24, he wrote the screenplay for St. Elmo’s Fire and became wired into the Hollywood writing scene – his big dilemma is moving back to Pittsburgh to take a teaching job, which he heroically does.

Indeed, the collective achievements of the folks in What Should I Do With My Life? are almost as daunting as the question itself. They certainly make me want to reboot my own life from time to time.

Po Bronson

But I don’t have the luxury of dwelling on such things, if only because, even as I’m teaching Bronson for one community service course, I’m reading Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh for another. Off The Books carries the subtitle The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, and what you get is exactly that – a close reporting of the complex exchanges and relationships that lends some order to the underground economy involving everyone from prostitutes and drug dealers to back alley mechanics and pastors. Many are hustling from day to day for simple survival, in a state of mutual vulnerability and mutual threat; they’re less worried about what they should do with their lives than where they can sleep tonight without being raped or robbed. Unlike Bronson with his reflective profiles, Venkatesh’s text is more dispassionate, preoccupied with reporting and analyzing the complexity of economic relationships over decades of urban history.  But there is enough flesh and blood, fear and anger, coming through the prose to feel a little less sympathy for Bronson’s heroes as the size up their choices.

At least, after all, they have some.

Reading these two books side by side, week after week, is simultaneously clarifying and unsettling. Even though Bronson interviews nary a millionaire – in fact, many folks are, at best, lower middle class – the contrast between the lives Americans lead in these two books is shocking.

What to take away from such juxtapositions?

The easy response is that the people in Bronson’s book seem naïve and self-centered by comparison, oblivious to their relatively blessed place in the greater scheme of things. Of course, Bronson sees that objection coming from a mile away. “Of all the psychological stumbling blocks that keep people from finding themselves, the most common problem is that people feel guilty for simply taking the question seriously,” Bronson writes in the chapter “The Umbrella of Freedom: Anyone Can Find This Important.”

As Bronson goes on to note,  “So many people I interviewed around the country felt guilty for obsessing about what kind of work they should do. It felt self-indulgent. They would say things like, ‘Poor people, they don’t get to choose. And they’re still happy. New immigrants, they’re ecstatic to have any job at all. You don’t see any of them stressing about who they are. They want to do well.’”

Bronson, of course, disagrees. Not only does he find it “terribly perverse” in this logic: Why should we live like poor people when poor people don’t want to live like poor people? But Bronson notes that even immigrants know life is about a lot more than money: “They routinely fight challenges to identity and self-esteem in the course of trying to work their way to better jobs. Not to mention the challenges of raising children and building a community.” Bronson includes his share of people who came from modest beginnings or have fairly pedestrian jobs – as well as those whose tough life choices included a commitment to serving others.

Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh.
(Photo by Melanie Dunlea/Creative Photographers.)

Meanwhile, it’s clear in Venkatesh’s pages that even as people participate out of necessity in the underground economy, they are often fueled by ideals of making the community better and taking care of the individuals in it, whether the cared for are church ladies or gang members. He describes three women (Marlene, Eunice and Bird) who came together to fight for their neighborhood despite considerable differences – one is a fervent churchgoer, another a prostitute. They have put themselves out front in not only trying to clean up the litter each week, but also in negotiating with gangs over dealers over when and how to use the park. They are clearly insisting on making a meaningful impact on the world around them, even as the forces arrayed against them invite them every day to give in.

Obviously, I am leaning here toward collapsing the distinctions between the worlds of Bronson and Venkatesh. But that, too, would be foolish. The books reflect very different realities, as vivid in contrast as the city I drive through twice a day as I head from my suburban campus through poverty-stricken areas and back out again to my condominium facing the woods.

There is no tidy resolution to this juxtaposition, no one-lesson-works-for-all ending. Bronson himself disdains such endings – he warns there’s no “one-size-fits-all” answer to What Should I Do With My Life?  We’re on shaky ground any time we reduce an individual’s complex experience to a single lesson; I impose no moral on the story of anyone in either book.

But from Bronson I do take one “extractable lesson” about life: Think bigger. From Venkatesh? In thinking bigger, include thinking of others, moving in a world I drive through every day, yet blithely ignore.

When Bronson was asked whether his book is “about life, or about careers,” Bronson would answer simply: “It’s about people who’ve dared to be honest with themselves.”

Even though the two authors don’t know it, Bronson and Venkatesh figure to keep working together to keep me on my toes.

Simple Eloquence and Eboo Patel

5 Apr

Eboo Patel, as photographed by Nubar Alexanian

Ever the English professor, as I sat Monday listening to Eboo Patel speak at Assumption College, I found myself drifting from what he was saying – about how to reduce the hate and violence in the world through training the young in religious pluralism – to how very well the man was saying it.

The founder and executive director of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, Patel makes 50 appearances a year to raise awareness, so it figures he would be good at it.

But this good? Without once glancing down at a script – if, indeed, there was one – Patel shared his stories and insights in perfectly formed and jargon-free sentences, an eloquence as plain as bread. The structure was just as elegant: He masterfully wove historical incidents and studies with his personal journey, one that took him through plenty of anger and doubt before arriving at a stronger sense of his own Islamic faith – and the way he wished to serve.

It was all so much better than the paragraph I just wrote. The one time when, in response to a question, Patel did stumble into a clunky phrase, he stopped and smiled.

“I have to find a way to say that that’s more rhythmic,” he said, drawing laughter, the loudest of which one was probably mine.

Of course, with no deeper intellectual or spiritual substance, all those perfectly articulated sentences and anecdotes fall apart like wet tissue paper. But Patel delivers more than his share, whether in person or in book form, which you can experience by picking up a copy of  Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.

Don’t get me wrong. Patel isn’t striving for some fanciful literary high-wire act. There is no dazzlingly poetic prose replete with lyricism and stream of consciousness. Thankfully, there also aren’t passages of academic density: Patel, who has a doctorate, nevertheless sidesteps the kind of academic discourse that, through its very abstraction, threatens to reach no one who hasn’t been to graduate school.

As he plainly puts it in the introduction: “This is a book about how some young people become champions of religious pluralism while others become foot soldiers of religious totalitarianism. Its thesis is simple: influences matter, programs count, mentors make a difference, institutions leave their mark.”

Message at Elgin, Illinois interfaith event
packaging food for the hungry of Haiti.

Readers drawn to hearts-in-their-throats fare – say, a novelistic protagonist suffering abject victimhood, striving to survive against a brutal backdrop of genocide and starvation – will find Patel’s raising in suburban Chicago slightly less gripping. But in a way that’s Patel’s point: Young people right here in the United States suffer discrimination based on religion, as well as race, gender and class. The vast alienation they experience many of them prime targets for totalitarians, some Bible-based white supremacists, some Koran-based Islamic extremists. And, of course, other stripes of demagogues as well, each willfully ignoring the traditions of love, acceptance and service of their own religions –focusing instead on the aspects that promote anger and judgment, hate and suspicion.

Patel’s personal story includes all of the above: In the book, he battles not only the hatred of others, but his own anger and fear. He shares wrestlings with times he could’ve acted and didn’t – and the even thornier question of, once you decide to act, figuring out how.

He finds his own answer in grasping the wisdom of his own faith, even as he strives to engage in conversation with all. In one sign of an honest story teller, Patel freely acknowledges that he’s privileging the positive stories of pluralism over more negative narratives that suggest we still have a very long way to go. By emphasizing the positive stories of progress, the “conversation continues.”

One prime example came when a student Monday asked Patel a question about service that occurs without a clear religious context.

“First,” he said, “whatever leads you to serve is terrific! … But what I would encourage is to reflect on how what you’re doing today connects to what has gone on before you.

“If you are working on a house for Habitat for Humanity, how might what you are feeling in your heart be like what was in the heart of a certain carpenter 2000 years ago.”

Mural in Dexter Avenue King Memorial basement, painted by deacon John W. Feagin in 1980.

So simply eloquent, this appeal to focus on the love at the heart of our faiths and our service, to the spirit that runs beneath language itself, even if it needs language to clarify and amplify. Listening, my own mind leaped back, if not 2000 years, at least 20 – to Montgomery, Alabama and the basement of Dexter Avenue-King Baptist Church. Sitting next to the wall mural that commemorated the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, in the same room where Rev. Martin Luther King and other brave souls planned the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a group of friends sought the advice of Rev. Murray Branch, who had taught Rev. King in seminary and now occupied his old pulpit. More relevant for us, Rev. Branch served on the board of Habitat for Humanity International. We were striving to start the first affiliate in Montgomery.

Rev. Branch, speaking with the same gentle and positive manner to which Patel aspires, made his biggest contribution to my own growth as a volunteer that night. The issue was not how to construct a house, but how to construct a sentence. “It’s important to remember that we’re not building houses for people; we’re building houses with people,” Rev. Branch said, in that soft voice that ironically gave him so much gravitas. “It’s doing with, not doing for.”

A simple difference in prepositions, but it says so much about the spiritual place from which service should spring. Even as Patel himself acknowledges, the other way of telling the story has validity – we are in a sense doing something for someone – but Rev. Branch’s version spoke to a more spiritually enlightened and less pretentious way to serve. We shouldn’t be condescendingly reaching down to help the little person, but extending a hand on level ground. Some might call that a fiction, but there are times when it’s a necessary one.

When, on my best days, I manage to act in that spirit, it’s because of that simple lesson in the implications of prepositions – given to us by anunassuming mentor of one of the 20th century’s great orators. “Doing with, not for” might not be “I have a dream,” but the phrases share the power of clarifying simplicity.

As it happened, Patel’s talk went on to touch on Rev. King and  Dexter Avenue Baptist. So during the book signing, I was moved to share with Patel my memory of Rev. Branch. “It’s so hard,” I told him, “to focus not only on what we say, but how we say it.”

Patel leaned back from the book he was signing and laughed.

“There are a million things I wish I could take back.”

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist

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