Saturday, January 30, 2010

last place first

I'm reading the book "Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs, In Afghanistan And Pakistan" by Greg Mortenson. It is a continuation of the story that began in "Three Cups of Tea," a serendipitous story about the Central Asia Institute's wonderful work of promoting peace by building 130 schools, most of them for girls, in the remotest regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The CAI has a "last place first" philosophy, an understanding that people who live in the last places - the people who (as Liberation Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez reminds us) are the smallest and most forgotten people in our world - show us the best of who we are and the finest of what we are meant to become.

My own life and work in the Clarksdale housing projects in Louisville, on the "wrong side of the tracks" in Tennessee, in a remote part of West Africa, and in a Title I elementary school in the Greenville County School District has helped me understand places and people in this way, too. I'm thinking of Nick, an inner-city kid who stood banging on my barred window at the Jeff Street Baptist Center at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning to remind me that I promised to take him to an afternoon movie. He taught me that promise keeping is sacred, especially for those who have known mostly broken promises. I'm thinking of Junior, a giant of a 65-year-old man with the innocent heart and mind of an 8-year-old child, who traveled the broken neighborhoods, public nursing homes, and county hospitals with me to visit the poor, the lonely, and the sick ones in our small community. He taught me that being is sacred, especially for those who have been mostly forgotten. I'm thinking of Momadu, a peasant farmer, cook, and pastor, who washed the mud off my shoes after helping me plant a garden. He taught me that grace is sacred, especially to those who have known mostly law. And I'm thinking of a classroom full of multi-colored 2nd graders, 19 seven and eight year olds who talk, walk, giggle, and wiggle when I tell them to hush, sit, listen, and be still. They teach me that staying is sacred, especially for those who have known mostly leaving.

These places are the stones that are building me. These people are the ones who are helping me become more human. I think the "last place first" philosophy offers the stones that can build our world into a more human place for everyone.

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