Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Altering Environments

A lot has happened since my last post. For one, I am now a proud twitter-er (is that a word?) with eight followers. Follow me – amyjmcnair – if you so desire. The Interfaith Youth Core’s (IFYC) Sixth Annual Conference was the last three days at Northwestern. The theme was “Leadership in a religiously diverse world.” Amazing speakers included Eboo Patel Exec director of IFYC, Joshua Dubois (Director of White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships), Saleemah Abdul Ghafur from the UN Special Envoy for Malaria Office, Rabbi David Saperstein, and Reverend Jim Wallis, among many others. There was a lot of really excellent things said, and being in a room with 500 other interfaith leaders from around the globe was inspiring in and of itself. Eboo talked quite a bit about how interfaith leaders have vision and positive knowledge of other religions, but they also alter environments. I think that is really important to remember this year. We have a chance to play on a level previous generations did not and the scene is set perfectly for malaria deaths to end. He quoted a Seamus Heaney poem that says; “Every once in a while, hope and history rhyme.” I thought that was so so so powerful. That time is now in my opinion, and we are a part of that. It is cool to be riding on the edge of this global movement and have people like Joshua Dubois saying interfaith is important and we can’t let religious difference get in the way of finding solutions to domestic and global problems. Some may call this idealistic, but I think it is optimism, and the world needs more optimists that act. I was also very proud of Christianity when Skye Jethani, editor of Leadership Journal for Christianity Today, spoke. He knocked it out of the park when he discussed how Christians have worked so hard to be relevant that they have become a joke. He talked about following Jesus, and how its not going to get you what you think it is that you want because God is not some kind of divine butler. Basically the conference was great, made lots of awesome new friends, and had a blast with the other FAFs that came.

Part of our time yesterday was spent doing a service project. My group went to the Chicago Women’s AIDS Project. Most of you know the AIDS community owns a huge portion of my heart, and I was very involved in Seattle so I was excited to go. After walking in and having a how do I say this… vivid/intense/descriptive/graphic/educational lesson on how to use female condoms we were privileged to be able to hear from two women currently living with AIDS. One woman, Helena, has lived a life that many religious people would condemn for a lot of reasons. I was blown away by her grace and openness in sharing her story. She talked about how the biggest thing she has learned is to forgive others (individuals and faith communities) for how they have treated her. I thought that was so powerful. I think the Christian church has a lot of apologizing they could do to the AIDS community that they have not done, and she, not even a Christian, was actively forgiving them for pain they have caused her.

Needless to say, I am learning so much and working hard. I wish I could articulate all I am seeing and learning, but most of it I can't even put into words.

Also, I have a heavy heart this morning because there was a shooting yesterday six blocks from my work and two people died. We didn’t know either of them, but it is still really sad. Please pray for the gang leaders involved. Violence does not help this community, or any other, to move forward.

Monday, October 19, 2009

rubber hits the road

Reality set in a lot this week for Rebecca and I. Training was a whirlwind and moving here and getting settled was overwhelming and busy. Then last week we sort of paused and realized how difficult this job is, and how much we have to accomplish in a short period of time. This is not to say that i am not still very excited; I am just realizing the hundreds of steps involved on a daily basis towards making this kind of action happen (never ending meetings, brainstorming, phone calls and emails). And this job is definitely about long term gratification, not short term success. So slogging away every day here does not have a lot of rewards now in the moment, but five years from now if interfaith partnerships are sustainable here and deaths from malaria have decreased, I will get the gratification I am looking for. And it is so cool to know the other Fellows are with us in this all over the world. Technology is so cool for that. Our websites are currently being launched and we had a conference call/website training over skype this week with a bunch of the Fellows where we all logged in to something and were watching the same computer screen while a guy was training us. It was cool. I am glad I live now and not 100 years ago.

We worked our first event this week: a community health fair. In typical non-profit style, 10 expected volunteers didn't show up so several of us were running around like crazy people until a half hour after the event started. It was freezing cold, but that meant the ice for the drinks didnt melt; and it didnt start raining until literally the second we stopped serving food. The event itself didn't fully fit in to our now incredibly defined strategy, but we had committed to it day one of work and we thought it would be a good way to meet the community. We ended up being the only white people we saw the whole day (as usual), but apparently locals around here assume if you are white you are from Minnesota. We got asked multiple times where in Minnesota or Wisconsin we are visiting from. People were pretty surprised when we said we live in the area and work for IMAN. I like surprising people like that.

At a church small group this week I was reflecting on a passage in the Bible from Ephesians that talks about God having prepared good works in advance for us to do. I was thinking hard about this and I am wondering, what if the good works God prepared are other people? There are people who are hurting and suffering unnecessarily around the world and God didn't necessarily cause that, but what if the people are the works? I am not talking about viewing them as projects, but I think I often have sat back and waited for what looked like a good work for me to do that I wanted to do. What if it was simply loving my neighbor? Serving food when it is cold at a health fair? Fighting for malaria eradication in Africa? Getting different religious groups to work together on global poverty issues? Those things were all right in front of me this week, and I think doing them is the right thing.

Food for thought for me at least.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

sirens and liquor stores

Starting to get into the groove of things here. We have a great strategy and have made some good contacts. Eight months is not a lot of time for all the things we want to do here, so we really hit the ground running. We are focusing on mobilizing different university campuses to partner with us to work on the Millenium Development Goals (specifically malaria as you all know), and some encouraging things have happened so far to point us in the right direction.

And I am trying to acclimate myself to the surroundings of the inner city as quickly as possible. At work, I hear sirens all the time. The area is so so bad and there are always cop sirens and ambulances making noise. The ghetto area here where my office is is in the middle of a food desert--this means there are no grocery stores/places to get fresh food. People's only choices are liquor stores or fast food. We literally drive under a certain bridge, and the roads immediately suck, the liquor stores emerge, and we become the only white faces. It is that drastic of a change that quickly. We (my work partner and I) participated in a community forum this week about muslim run liquor stores. The Muslim community discussed why muslim immigrants are in a predominantly African American area running liquor stores and selling alcohol. Muslims typically don't drink or sell/handle alcohol. It was a great discussion and challenging to think about why liquor stores are not a problem in white or rich neighborhoods (the people wouldn't stand for them) but here this type of behavior is accepted or put up with because people seem to think things cannot change. In a lot of ways I feel like I was an ostrich with my head in the sand on a lot of the issues that have emerged in the last week in what is now my neighborhood, and I am trying hard to keep up. All day yesterday I was learning about gangs. Everything here means something. Wearing a hat to the right or left, rolling a pant leg, wearing specific colors, you will literally get beat up if you walk down the street wearing the wrong thing. Being nieve is not an option. Everyone understands, and deals with it. We handed out flyers at some of the local high schools about our upcoming health fair and I felt punched in the stomach by how bad the schools were. I am used to this type of thing in my travels abroad, but not here. Its like the kids are expected to fail. How anyone here becomes anything other than a statistic is absolutely mind boggling to me. And yet people do, and it is amazing. I work with so many incredible people with incredible life stories I am only beginning to hear, and it is a privilege to learn from them.

I am going to a corn maze tonight with the 20-somethings group at my new church. There is frost predicted and I think its supposed to be about 31 degrees. It is my first attempt to dress warmly for a cold Illinois night. I will give it a valiant effort (basically that means wearing everything I own). I am going to measure success by whether or not I can still feel my appendages at the end of the night. Tomorrow is the Chicago marathon. 45,000 runners. I am excited to wander around and witness it as a new Chicagoan and feel very out of shape compared to everyone else. Especially because yesterday I learned about pretzel rolls (if you don't know what they are google them) and I ate two this morning at two different bakeries. When you come visit me in Chicago we will get them. They are awesome.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


I have been here for a little more then a week. Chicago is a really cool city. The drivers are super assertive which I love (and is a nice change from Seattle) and the people are very friendly overall. The pizza is awesome, and there are thunderstorms. Really loud ones that kind of freak me out while simultaneously being super awesome. I started work on Thursday and it is pretty overwhelming. Being a minority is something I have experienced in my life in several different contexts, but I feel like I have much more awareness even after the past five days of how difficult constantly being the minority is; particularly when it is both ethnic and religious.

I am working in the inner-city with a great Muslim organization. The first days at a new job are always hard and overwhelming, and I am trying to think about how I can be an asset to the organization and do my job effectively in an environment where I dont feel like I have much to offer currently and I think my main job should be listening to everyone else. I just don't know what life is like as an African American Muslim in inner city Chicago. I think I will learn a lot, and fast. I am so grateful for how patient people are being with me, and I am excited to meet more people, and get involved with different faith communities here. Our work on the ground with malaria awareness will be a challenge in this context, but Rebecca (my work partner) and I are creative and I am sure we will do well. We are helping at a health fair in a few weeks, and planning a blood drive that will include malaria education later in the fall.

In other news, I decided with Rebecca to take a spontaneous trip to Wisconsin yesterday. I had never been there before. We visited a Jelly Belly factory and got a free tour that included free samples (including 7-up flavored jelly beans) and tasted some famous wisconsin cheese from a local market on the side of the road on the way back. I found a great donut place here (those of you who know me well know how important that is) that has awesome apple fritters. And my yellow car sticks out like a sore thumb everywhere I go. I have now been pulled over twice by different friendly Chicago cops simply to ask if I was lost because of my California license plates. I appreciate the gesture, but I keep thinking I am getting a ticket. Its not good for my nerves. :)