Give Some Grace


I worked from the coffee shop today. I am an extrovert. My energy from being around people. This is usually great for my line of work, unless I have a bunch of projects to complete and my need to connect with people becomes a distraction. Write... research… emails… or people… I pick people every time. So, I drive to a coffee shop out of town every other week to help with my productivity. It’s working! I get to be around people, but I’m not distracted. Well, most of the time I am not distracted…“I CAME BY HERE, INSTEAD OF GOING HOME AFTER THE DOCTOR. THEY GOT THAT DELICIOUS STRAWBERRY SALAD!” A voice from behind me yelled. It was actually sort of startling at first. I perked up in the booth. “YEAH I DON’T HAVE A HOME PHONE ANYMORE. JUST THIS PORTABLE ONE...” she continued. Her conversation cut through all the surrounding sounds, the classical music playing, customers ordering, and even the loud coffee machines. She continued with her phone conversation on speaker phone for nearly fifteen minutes! The rest of the coffee drinkers in the place and I could tell you what has happened in the little lady’s life the last month, in GREAT DETAIL. From the garden she didn’t feel up to planting this year, to her new neighbors who have an unruly dog. A few times I thought, I wonder if she knows her cell phone is on speaker? What would happen if someone said to her politely, “Ma’am everyone can hear you, could you talk quieter?” Instead I decided to observe the other folks in the room. The young college student with headphones just chuckled and turned up his music. The couple who smiled at me repeatedly and the woman even got up to refill her drink and leaned over and said, “Isn’t that cute?” The group of men who seemed to be doing some serious business, made a few comments to themselves about it and then (with smiles) moved to another table, but said nothing. The woman with a small child, winked at me a few times and audibly laughed.

Everyone offered grace.

I was really puzzled by the ordeal. I mean she was loud… it was distracting. It was against the rules and all coffee shop etiquette. I kept asking myself, why did everyone give the woman a free pass? It’s not fair. That’s the problem with grace – it’s not fair. And that’s why we don’t like it – we have so many expectations that life is, or at least should be, fair. Grace disrupts this idea and introduces a variable that is uncomfortable. We prefer order, stability, even predictability. Why? Because, that gives us the illusion that we are in control.If we know the rules and can count on them, then we figure that by playing by those rules we stay in the game. Which is why we get upset when someone comes and messes with them.When you’re in poverty, when the world hasn’t been fair to you, or when you’re the one who screwed up and hurt yourself or someone else, then, suddenly, grace matters. Grace matters if you live alone and haven’t had a conversation with your granddaughter in months—just a quick phone call and getting out of the house for a strawberry salad makes the isolation go away for the day. Grace matters if you’re an eighty-year-old in the local coffee shop. Grace is for the people who break from norms. Sometimes they just don’t have it all together. Sometimes the rules are out of date and grace can provide the space to realize that maybe the rules need a revision. Grace is uncomfortable sometimes – in that it messes with our sense of order – but when we extend grace, it’s an opportunity to see our neighbor and connect to the brokenness we all have.

With these connections we can build something beautiful, together…

Where do you have an opportunity to give grace this week? 

Lessons on Sweet Potato Fries and Airplanes


Have you ever tried to put 30 pounds of apples into a ten pound bag?I often live under the illusion that I can fit just one more minor task in my day, a practice that works for me most of the time.Such was the case when I recently landed in Tampa, Florida and discovered that I had been spared what I thought was the perfect amount of time to grab a bite 'to go' from the food court next to my gate. I ordered, paid more than I wanted to, and stood there drooling over the fact that it was going to be all worth it when I bit down on those fresh sweet potato fries.These days, the luxury of filling my belly between flight connections is a rarity.As the minutes began to pass, I started to feel a little more panicked.  Certain signs began to tell me I may have to choose between my food and the flight home. I was feeling terrible because I had dragged my colleague into this mess, and she was probably not going to get her order either. The women working the grill were moving in slow motion, like a cartoon. “Hadn't their manager told them that they work in an airport?’ I thought to myself. “Pick up the pace ladies!!”  In a panic, I told the cashier that we were going to miss our plane. She clearly didn't care. Food, or plane? We chose plane.I huffed and puffed about this whole situation through the bulk of our two-hour flight home. By the time we landed, it would be close to nine hours since our last meal.Then it hit me hard. We'd just come from a conference on social factors that drive negative health outcomes, especially for people in poverty.  Just several hours earlier I was having conversations about the countless seniors in this country who are choosing between buying food or medicine. Hourly workers are grabbing chips in the vending machine for lunch, because they are experiencing scarcity of time or money.  Parents are spending four dollars a gallon for milk at the local convenience mart, because they have no transportation and the closest grocery is a fifty minute walk.I needed to NOT get my food that day. My current state of life allows me the privilege to not care about the food insecurity of people in my own community, if I so choose. My privilege invites me to cling to two extreme and dehumanizing narratives, either:

  1. That people experience hunger because they are helpless victims of a terrible system, or
  2. That they are just living with the consequences of their own behavior.

These narratives place me in characters I wasn't meant to play, as the hero rescuing the victim or the protagonist using blame or shame to justify my own apathetic state.Listen up folks because here is the point: We have a full-on assault to caring in our country because these narratives are being applied to a whole host of social issues including homelessness, substance abuse, social isolation, racism and more.  And if we continue to embrace them, then we continue to erode what we know to be true in the depths of our soul... that all people have inherent dignity and value. This truth requires us to care and engage with inequity; working towards just systems with people experiencing poverty at the center of the change, as key actors in their own story.But caring is like a muscle. It has to be consistently strengthened or it will atrophy. And sometimes that strengthening comes through little annoyances, like not getting my food. 

 For up-to-date information on food insecurity in America go to foodinsight.org.

An Operating System Gone Wrong


Not too long ago, I found myself paralyzed in the moment.In light of the everyday tragedies that fill our world, this was really just a blip on the radar -- however, in that moment, I was reminded of how dependent most of us have become on technology for our most basic everyday functioning.  It was after lunch, and I was preparing to print materials for a board meeting late that afternoon and for a presentation the next morning. So naturally, at that exact point in time, my computer’s operating system decided that it was time for an update. Nevermind that I had previously set aside several reminders to update my system, or that I was the one that had chosen to use a PC instead of a Mac. For the next 45 minutes, I could do nothing but sit and wait for my computer to reconfigure itself into something more functional.All of us operate within systems that we did not design and likely have little control over. Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about all of the operating systems that govern our lives, humming quietly in the background. On my laptop or mobile device, I have a tendency to focus my attention on all of the shiny programs and applications that offer greater efficiency, more robust communication, or inspire new creativity. However, ask any Microsoft executive about Windows Vista and you will hear the haunting tale of an operating system gone wrong, causing Microsoft to fall behind during an important season in mobile and traditional computing. Perhaps we have something to learn about the work of poverty alleviation from our friends in technology. Connections often reveal themselves in unlikely places. Each year, we spend millions of dollars and countless hours of personal investment on the development of new programs aimed at addressing poverty. There is no doubt that these developments have spurred progress in many areas and have helped to improve quality of life and hope for many. At Think Tank, we encourage the development and cultivation of models of poverty alleviation that focus on restoring people to wholeness. However, in that process, we think it is vital that we get under the hood and look at our operating system driving the work of poverty alleviation in our communities. In other words, it’s not just about what we do to address poverty, it’s about how we do it.  

Change is most effective when those we serve have an equal say and stake in making their communities better.

To that end, we lift up five practices that must become ingrained into how we go about addressing poverty in our communities. These five practices are essential if we are going to attack American poverty at its core. First of all, we have an opportunity to break out of our compartmentalized way of thinking that, for example, views health only in terms of healthcare or housing only in terms of bricks and mortar. We must recognize the interconnected parts of people and communities and pursue holistic solutions.Secondly, we must cultivate the discipline of listening first. It’s easy for people, out of a desire to help, to assume what needs are present in their community and give accordingly. Yet, better outcomes happen when we first listen to those we want to help and truly value their experiences, needs, and goals.Instead of inspiring people to work for their communities, we should care about people working with their communities. Doing with, rather than ‘doing to’ or ‘doing for’, should be our default posture.Additionally, we believe change is most effective when those we serve have an equal say and stake in making their communities better. That sustained change is dependent upon intentionally promoting leadership from within communities impacted by poverty.And finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must learn to take an authentically-relational approach to fighting poverty. In an American society that continues to become more diverse, we need more contexts where people can connect meaningfully across difference. We know that relationships facilitate individual and community change, so we must build social capital -- especially among, and with, neighborhoods impacted by poverty.I am reminded time and again that change comes both in spite of us and, by the grace of God, through us. It comes, and the systems will adapt, just as they’ve always done. But, we have a choice in how change is seated within us.Poverty is already proof of an operating system gone wrong. Will we check our own to fix it?tt-blog-spark_o2by Marlo Fox for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Marlo’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Go With Love


I do not like crumbs in the bed...My nine-year-old daughter, Mary, organized a surprise movie night for me. She decorated my room with movie theater candy, creative homemade reserved seat signs, popcorn, and soda with fancy straws. She was so excited to unveil her surprise. She grabbed the remote and said, "Okay, Mom, let's pick a movie!"She invited me to sit on my bed, with her hand full of popcorn to watch the movie. I could see the crumbs tumbling down into the bed before the movie even began. And the sight...



Cringe.I had to make a choice.I decided to go with love, instead of focusing on the kernels dropping on the sheets.While this small event may be just a fleeting memory in my family history, it inspired me to think about the space between discomfort and a connection to something greater. In order to live in a community, sometimes I have had to take up my discomfort and recognize the opportunity to transform it into love and understanding.Think about...The single mom who has more children than she can afford, and you don't like that she's pregnant with another. Go with love.The recovering addict who seems to have only curse words in his vocabulary, and you don't like that he cusses in church. Go with love.The felon who is covered in tattoos, and you don't like that he lives with a woman he's not married to. Go with love.The stinky guy who always wants to give you a hug at the community meal, and you don't like that he has poor hygiene. Go with love.Sometimes we miss opportunities to create moments of genuine connection, because we can't sit with a certain level of discomfort within our beliefs. We miss experiences that we never forget. We miss times that teach us more about ourselves than others.When we go with love, it can be hard. It can mean navigating situations that go against our norm, and forgoing control and comfort.Our movie night was wonderful. We watched Pete's Dragon, one of my favorite movies as a child. I didn't say anything about the crumbs in the bed, but instead I focused on the important stuff, and I chose love.

What does it really mean to choose love? Love is courage, not comfort.Love is a decision, not a reaction.Love is selfless, not selfish.Love is connection.

tt-blog-spark_o2by Heather Cunningham — to learn more about Heather’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Paralyzed In Poverty, Part III


This is the third and final chapter of the Rethink Community mini-series, Paralyzed In Poverty, an as-told-to narrative based directly on the account of Andrea Harper and her perspective on living life in poverty.Harper, a former presidentially-recognized mathematics educator from Springfield, OH, was put on the road of redemption after dealing with a combination of circumstances which left her struggling in poverty and having to reclaim her good name when left subject to the judicial system.Currently earning her master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling at Wright State University, today, the former Princeton Review professor is a licensed chemical dependency (LCDC II) counselor and serves as a poverty-alleviation training facilitator and speaker for Think Tank, Inc., a federal partner of the Corporation of National & Community Service (CNCS).In case you missed them, please read Part I and Part II.

“Now remember, Andrea -- you only have 30 minutes travel time from the time you leave work to pick up your child.”That’s what I tell myself. The Title 20 social worker asked why my card swipe times were so inconsistent for picking up my baby. God forbid that I go to the store really quickly, or run home to throw a load of laundry in, or do the dishes, or have some decompression time before I pick up my kids. They have taken over the management of my life and determine who lives in my home. And so we make decisions I’m not proud of to make ends meet. Claiming his income would mean a loss of food stamps or a raise in the PIPP bills. Sometimes I wonder how I fit it all into a 24-hour period. I do not seem to get much help. I work full time, I am responsible for all the appointments for the kids -- and don’t forget to get documentation for every one of them, so you can get your gas cards at the end of the month. I do the grocery shopping and shopping for everything the home needs. I have a 1-year-old; a 12-year-old whose school calls me at least 3x/week, due to her special emotional needs; and a 17-year-old who lives her own life and is honestly not much help. I have to fit all the laundry, cleaning, and organization of the home in there, too -- on top of my NA meetings on lunch break (instead of eating), my counseling to keep me sane, and my medications to keep me stable. I get jealous of those who can afford house cleaners and nannies that come to the home -- or someone that cooks every meal.I have worked so hard my entire life. Why the short end of the stick for me? Why do I always feel like I am working harder than every single person around me? Maybe not at work, but for sure in all of life.  Most days I am filled with gratitude and peace from a God of my understanding and that personal relationship carries me through.  But other days, days like today, I just feel some type of way...perplexed...frustrated.
Scarcity exists in poverty. There is no 'off' switch. There is no vacation.

Now I know what some of you that are reading might be thinking (especially if you are a typical working mother in 2017), 'I have to run around and do all of these things in a day too! What makes poverty so rough?!?' Really, this is a point of intersection of shared experience between people in poverty, people of middle class, and people of wealth. I encourage you to share in that feeling of being overwhelmed and connecting our shared experiences of scarcity -- whether it's in financial resources, social capital, or time. Don’t quote me on this, I am recalling this from memory…but, I heard this story about a former President. The headline read something like, 'President goes golfing after threat to America'. But, I thought about it… this man might have just wanted to turn off for a minute before making a huge world-changing decision that would weigh heavy on his heart. This man has the resources to go golfing. I could judge him and say, ‘Must be nice.’ But I also can identify with that feeling of 'I JUST NEED A BREAK!!!'As an addict in recovery, I can understand that feeling of wanting to turn off. There were many times when I thought that using drugs was my only option and resource to tune out for a moment. I thank God that I have been able to rid myself of the weight of substance abuse. But that feeling remains. I don’t feel like I have a means to turn off the switch of life’s expectations. That is the scarcity that exists in poverty. There is no 'off' switch. There is no vacation. Often, there are no social resources to just get away for a weekend. This is not meant to produce guilt. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, because I don’t get a vacation. I am asking you find the space for understanding when you read stories of people in poverty or meet people with limited financial resources. I think that the feelings of isolation and brokenness are more pronounced in poverty. And I know this both from my personal experiences in poverty and my life as a middle-class teacher. But we all feel isolated and broken sometimes. Let's use that common experience to connect us.How can we experience restoration together?tt-blog-spark_o2by Andrea Harper for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Andrea’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Paralyzed In Poverty, Part II


This is the second part of the Rethink Community mini-series, Paralyzed In Poverty, a first-person account of living life in poverty from the perspective of Andrea Harper.Harper, a former presidentially-recognized mathematics educator from Springfield, OH, was put on the road of redemption after falling victim to a combination of circumstances which left her struggling in poverty and having to reclaim her good name when left subject to the judicial system.Currently earning her master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling at Wright State University, today, the former Princeton Review professor is a licensed chemical dependency (LCDC II) counselor and serves as a poverty-alleviation training facilitator and speaker for Think Tank, Inc., a federal partner of the Corporation of National & Community Service (CNCS).In case you missed it, please read Part I.The following are Harper’s own words.TT-Blog-Spark_B2“Mom, why would you tell him we were ghetto-rich?”My 12-year-old was shocked and embarrassed that she found out we make way less money than her uncle, my brother. I have literally built my life up from ground-zero poverty twice in my life. I mean poverty in every area, except intellectual, and sometimes, that spoke of the wheel even felt broken due to the heavy amounts of mental health medications I had to take at the time.  Together for a family of five, we make $24,000/year and that includes the $700 monthly social security check and the $5000 of cash odd jobs we do throughout the year.  Our credit is good, so we buy new cars, both of us, my husband and I. Our house is paid off, but on the borderline of being condemned, due to damage to the foundation and malfunctioning windows in the home. We don’t have to pay a mortgage -- just $110/month for insurance and taxes.  We all have new cellphones, iPads, and computers in the home. We pay cash for braces for our 12-year-old.  My husband’s family comes from deep generational poverty and thinks we are well off. It is only because I can navigate the resources and know every program that can give me a break or benefits to offer. We don’t pay for childcare, but we have to leave our precious baby -- the most important thing in our life -- with someone we met once and has mediocre childcare.We don’t pay for gas for my car. Or food. Or medical expenses. We all have name brand wardrobes. But, we have no money for vacations. We live off our tax returns for high-price items throughout the year.Poverty comes with a great deal of stress with having to have all your documents and receipts and proof of attendance all in a row, and at the right time, because having one thing off means a benefit is cut off -- just like that. My children don’t have to be without, and they get mostly what they ask for. So, by some of our families’ standards, we have it all together.     Poverty is relative. Middle-class values, work ethic, and organizational skills can make you successful in the navigation of the resources available to those of us in poverty who think ‘middle class’. But, the system is not set up for those with a generational poverty mindset. The appointment and documentation and organization and tricks of the trade are way too much for someone who lives only in the moment. It is too much to manage for someone who does not have transportation or has a crisis in his or her life. We have a system that sets some up to be ghetto-rich (if they have the knowledge to become so) and others to fail miserably, trying to survive.   How do relationships play a part in this real-life story...my real-life story? An employer allowing flex-time for appointments, or letting me leave an hour early to go home to clean or grocery shop before I pick up my kids. Someone who is willing to pay a living wage that would allow me to let go of the social security check (which has personally become my security blanket, if you will). A family member who would do childcare for you; a member of the family who would help a lot with the cleaning and cooking. One person, one relationship, can lighten the load -- it can really make the difference.So, the system, it may stay the same, so the individual may stay the same, but the relational interaction of just one person can be a game-changer in very small ways or very large ways. A relationship can move a family from living ghetto rich to middle class.tt-blog-spark_o2

by Andrea Harper for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Andrea’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Paralyzed in Poverty, Part I


This is the first chapter of the Rethink Community mini-series, Paralyzed In Poverty, an as-told-to narrative based directly on the account of Andrea Harper and her perspective on living life in poverty.

Hi, I’m Andrea, and this is my first-person account of how it feels to suffer from the effects of poverty, to learn to live in it, and to struggle to climb away from it.Once upon a time, I was an educator, top-rated and vetted by my school district, my state, and even my country. Some bad decisions and other complex factors led me to becoming a felon and I had to rebuild my life, but not before entering into extreme poverty first. This short narrative is what has been crossing my mind as I continue my journey out of poverty. My mind races with the following thoughts.TT-Blog-Spark_B2I got my LCDCII (licensed chemical dependency counselor) licensure in the mail today -- a crossroads and pivotal moment is in front of me. This could be my way out of poverty.Why am I even contemplating staying where I am?Why am I paralyzed in poverty, I am seeing a possible way to financially get out of it?How in the world do I get out of this?Do I have the courage to look over the cliff? Is there a way out without hurting too bad?I have been tenacious and determined to figure living in poverty out. I have used my intellectual gifts to navigate every resource. My experience with material poverty is situational.(My situation today includes -- recovery in addiction and mental illness, a bachelor's degree in education that is of little value [because of my conviction] and every subsidy you can access as an under-resourced mother of three [medical, food stamps, housing, social security, the list goes on…].)I was raised with strong middle-class value system around saving money, having work ethic, and paying bills on time. I believe in higher education.Why won’t I let this social security check go? It’s like a stronghold. I have been traumatized by the effects of losing it all...of being thrashed into situational poverty from the effects of the disease of addiction.I lost my career, my home, my vehicle, my retirement, and every cent to my name. I moved into a home that should have been condemned while living off of $350/month and buying money orders at the moto-mart to pay my utilities (along with buying two cartons of cigarettes to last me the month) -- that was my monthly ritual. I have used resources in poverty to make my earning power be as if I am middle-class. “Ghetto rich”, I call it.I have the experience and license and education now to go on to full-time employment without the check -- but damn, it’s $700/month gone! And 20 more hours of work a week away from my home and my children to be at the same earning power that I am right now.Is the system a trap? or am I trapped, by fear?Why not take the risk?
Getting out of poverty is not always this glorious move with rainbows and flowers. The change process is scary. The system offers important resources, but can quickly become a crutch to getting ahead.Sometimes the pain of a comfortable situation is easier to live with than the ambiguity of the future.That's the pain. That's the truth about poverty.tt-blog-spark_o2
by Andrea Harper for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Andrea’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

From Divisions and Differences, Radical Alliances


I was a newly-elected legislator with hard-wired opinions about ‘the poor’. He was an advocate for them. We both were stepping into a highly-charged policy discussion about poverty: one of the most politicized topics in America, and the first impressions were not favorable. All the signals of ‘left-wing do-gooder’ were flashing in my head about him. But, he probably thought that about me -- no, I am sure he did -- ‘heartless, right-wing conservative’. This is how we do it, you know -- with our first moments of sizing up and labeling.But, as we spent more time with each other, sharing our life stories and the like, we discovered a common bond and purpose in our work. We both felt that ‘the Great American Safety Net’ was keeping and trapping people into poverty, not liberating them from it-- and the human cost of it all was devastating to our communities. Despite our very public political and world view differences, an odd couple was born, and together we helped craft legislation directed at solving the problem. A tiny step from a public policy perspective but a giant leap for a guy who had closed his mind to new ideas that didn't properly fit into his ideological box.. I found an alliance in the strangest of places. A radical alliance.What do I mean by “radical alliance”? A radical alliance is, simply, a relationship that cuts across ideological, class, ethnic/racial, or even theological lines for mutual benefit. These types of relationships may be the secret to laying the foundation and principles that will lead to lasting transformation for our cities and communities. It is our contention that the formation, development, and cultivation of radical alliances is the last best hope in alleviating poverty in a divided America. Alliances such as these -- whether between institutions, organizations, or individuals -- are radical, because they push against the prevailing norms, fixed ideas and established structures.They may be new friendships with people who are very different than you. Perhaps they have values, experiences, ethnicities, lifestyles, neighborhoods, or upbringings that differ from your own. It could be unsettling and awkward at first, sweeping you away from your protected comfort zone. Maybe even a little risky and provoke comments like ‘what would people think’ or even ‘Why am I wasting time with this person? This is beneath me. Or, ‘This doesn't add to my career or reputation if I align with them.’hand-1917895_1280By intentionally and purposefully forming these kind of alliances, we just may be able to create positive, meaningful, and lasting community change. When we unite in spite of our differences, we just may discover the deep and sometimes hidden ties that bind us together around a particular cause, a mission, or a community project. It’s not only radical, but profoundly counter-cultural in an American civic environment. It carves us all into dozens of identity/political interest groups that intentionally pit us against one another.The stories and narratives we tell ourselves about those so-called others, about their neighborhoods or their cultures, ethnicities, or political affiliations, can all come crashing down on us when we enter into relationship and discover that we have so much more in common than those things that divide us. We have to resist that gravitational pull away from people different than us and insist that a new approach of seeing others can deliver a powerful, spiritual, and personal rebirth that delight us when discovered. These moments of revelation can be transcendent and definitive, and have greater potential to shake us to our core, because they disrupt what ‘ought to be’ in our minds or the way things have always been. They can surprise us in their intensity and power, and beget fresh and new understandings.As it turned out, this new relationship in my life inspired legislation to be passed and enacted. A relatively modest positive step in the grand scheme of things, but the process was in place for new relationships and new learning in how to impact communities engulfed in poverty. The lasting truths, however, for me and my own spiritual journey have been profound, notwithstanding some painful and humbling self-reflection. It took someone from the other side of the aisle, as they say, to shake up some assumptions and value judgements. I am a richer man for it, and I just bet you, he as well.tt-blog-spark_o2

by John White — to learn more about John’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Everything Has Purpose


Entering through the door, she held up a wrinkled Ziploc bag containing a five-dollar bill.“You know, once I go back home, my uncle won’t take me back out for the weekend. Could we stop at the thrift store later? I’d like to get some clothes.”It was an unusually warm February evening, and we had a few things planned, but I assured her that we could fit in a short shopping trip. Serena was entering that stage where girls become aware of the fact that clothes are suddenly more valuable than toys to them, as they awkwardly try to hang on to childhood while reaching for a more grownup identity.We sat around the table eating pizza and talking about our day, as my daughter began to describe an all-too familiar experience for kids her age. Apparently, a clique of girls at school had shot nasty looks to she and her friend, gossiping and saying mean things about them. These kinds of episodes are pointedly painful for my daughter, as her people-pleasing instincts and fear of being alone cause her to internalize even the slightest hint of rejection. In a moment, the raw vulnerability that had been expressed opened the door for a flood of advice and sharing of her own experiences from Serena.As Serena viscerally described the names that had been ascribed to her and the ways in which she had been bullied, sorrow welled up in all of us. I wondered, how it is that we’ve allowed the experience of poverty or condition of obesity to serve as justification to treat others as objects to be beaten down? If any justice could be found in the situation, it would be in the fact that a caring and no-nonsense principal was doing her best to foster a culture of affirmation and accountability among all members of the school -- teachers and students alike. Still, no system can mandate love and even though her peers were forced to ‘behave,’ Serena knew what they really thought of her. After a bit of encouragement, the kids moved swiftly on to less weighty subjects and activities.Quickly the evening passed, yet we had one last thing on our list to do. Nothing must be worse to a thrift store clerk than three hyper youth with a handful of dollars, streaming into the store just before closing. I quickly stepped into the role of sergeant, trying to keep the kids focused on what we were there to get. Then we began sorting through a pile of larger-sized clothes that seemed to be fashioned more for a 50-year-old than a young teen. Making our way to the back of the store, there were a myriad of random items sitting on a shelf. As a minimalist with a very strong aversion for clutter, I couldn’t help but think how awful all of this stuff was. Perhaps of the same mind, one of the clerks came back our way, putting an old candle on the shelf. Trying to make conversation, she said, “This candle is really ugly, isn’t it?!” And then...a magical thing happened.Without missing a beat, Serena looked stone-face at the clerk, and calmly, but clearly, said,

“Nothing is ugly. Everything has purpose.”

It was as if the voice of God had just spoken to us. For a brief moment, all the clerk and I could do was look at one another, knowing we had been called out.Youth have no use for cliches. What Serena said was a glorious truth that by grace had been revealed to her in her pain. And at that moment, the truth was not only meant to bring redemption to her own experience, it was also redeeming the clerk...and me. For all of the times I had arrogantly claimed beauty for some parts of my community and ugliness for others, I needed that truth. For the times I’ve looked at others with suspicion, contempt or didn’t even see them at all, I needed that truth. And in that moment, I was grateful for the profound truths that children have to share with us when we are present enough to listen.tt-blog-spark_o2by Marlo Fox for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Marlo’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org



Today I picked my eight-year-old daughter up from her elementary school (we only live two miles away). I pulled up and she jumped in the car, as she was excitedly flashing a smile on her face. Before the car door was even closed shut and her seat belt buckled, she was talking 90 miles a minute. During the three-minute drive home, I was totally bombarded with the details of her day. Full blast.I’ll be honest -- it was exhausting to hear. The lunch room, her teacher, the playground...you get the picture. At one point, I turned the dial on the radio, hoping she'd take a breath -- but she just talked louder. When we pulled into the driveway, I quickly dismissed the conversation and headed in the house to get our evening routine started. Recently, I have felt similar feelings when surfing Facebook, watching the news, or having conversations with friends. It's no secret that our political climate is full of social ambiguity and anger. People are talking 90 miles a minute, spewing their thoughts like third-graders all over social media and really any other platform they can. It's exhausting. I just want to dismiss all the conversations and stick to my routine. But what if I take a moment to listen? Not respond, but truly listen. Communication is complicated. Sometimes, when we want to share our story or experience, we result to a rapid firing of every thought, every detail. When we feel others aren’t listening, we get louder. This is a result of not feeling heard (and truthfully, many times, not being heard). During dinner, my husband asked the standard question, "How was everyone's day?" Our daughter went to explain that she was excited about a class presentation that she was in charge of. I said, "Wow, that’s great -- I didn't know that!" And of course she said, "Mom, I told you all about it in the car!" As exhausting as it can be, I encourage you to hear others. Listen and reflect. Because you may miss something important.tt-blog-spark_o2by Heather Cunningham — to learn more about Heather’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Do We?


Communities are relationships.We have a tendency not to think of communities that way, because of the corporate identity that they assume (or inherit, willing and unwillingly alike), but it’s simple -- communities, just like relationships, require communication. Communication that’s sincere and honest requires trust.Do we trust our communities? Do we trust each other in our communities? Do we trust ourselves? These are questions that we must ask, because if we are ever to make changes in our communities, in our communal relationships in which we are established, willfully or not, we must see ourselves as brothers & sisters and be keepers. And keepers keep in touch. Keepers communicate.In the world we’re in today, in the country that we as Americans abide, we’ve seen how divisiveness based on hate, fear, indifference, and at the very least, disinterest, has created and continued a legacy maelstrom of maladies for which we are now having to address in legislation. We’ve bore witness to countless murders, pain and suffering of all sorts, and freedom ringing in such a way that our own ears ring daily with a plethora of messages of aggression, pride, and assumptions. We have allowed ourselves to be deaf to our partners, our neighbors.When you listen to your partner, your spouse, you do so because you feel tied to the words, thoughts, and feelings of that person, and you probably desire to make known that he or she is valued and heard. You want to address that person with the sensitivity and respect that he/she merits, out of love. Why can’t we address each other with a humane respect and love that we need to survive and thrive in our world, our country, our communities? Why must we continue to persist that we are better when we keep our heads down and our ears plugged to the needs of our neighbors? It’s more than just mailing off monies to the March of Dimes or Shriners when they send donation by snail mail -- those are great causes, but we must show empathy for each other, person to person, spirit to spirit, heart to heart, day by day. It's far greater than an offering sent accompanied by a self-addressed envelope.Do we care about ourselves? Do we? because if we do, we’d know that caring for ourselves is much easier when we keep the cares of our neighbors close to us, looking to bear each other’s burdens and being open to the needs of those who live among us. It’s prayer, it’s earnest search for education and knowledge about our communities, it’s a willingness to see the world from other perspectives, it’s a desire to see the humanity in those who may seem a world away. It’s about loving ourselves well enough to understand that when we are enlightened about one another, we can better serve one another.Life is service, love is sincere and preferred service, and sincere service is about selflessness, and relationships of all kinds only work when we prefer the other in them, because that is a demonstration of love. And love demonstrates trust, love keeps others, love communicates the sincere intentions of the heart and manifests them.So, the real question becomes not do we care about ourselves, but do we love ourselves enough to demonstrably care for one another.Do we?tt-blog-spark_o2by Sandy Dover for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Think Tank, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Dying To Live A Life Abundant


I didn’t want to write this blog.It would be easy to make an excuse like writer’s block, when, in reality, I was probably just trying to avoid the message that kept coming to me.In my life, I’ve found that most years offer a theme, a life lesson, if we’re conscious enough to hear it. And for me, the theme of 2016 was death. Thankfully not death in a physical sense, but death as the psychological and spiritual growth engine that moves us to higher places, if we let it.This theme didn’t seem to square with what I was hearing or reading from popular leaders, CEOs, and inspirational writers. Their New Year’s letters were filled with seemingly more victorious topics, like ‘10 ways to be more effective, positive and successful in 2017’. Who doesn’t want to hear that? In reality, 2016 was a great year on many fronts and the future always offers an air of hope and promise.So before you CLICK OFF the page, stick with me just a moment longer. Maybe, like me, you needed to hear this same message. What seems like a depressing topic actually turns out to be quite liberating (it is for me, anyway). Learning to embrace death actually comes with a surprising form of peace. Those who have spent time with addicts know that people in recovery possess a special authority. They can’t lean on a false sense of who they are. Their death journey puts them in a unique place to receive life, to experience transformation.Death manifests itself in many ways:

  •         Living with failure
  •         Letting go of ego
  •         Living in a state of limbo or uncertainty
  •         Hitting the wall
  •         Dealing with unmet expectations
  •         Lacking answers
  •         Letting go of power or control

I recently had a conversation with a teacher that was working in an under-performing school district. The students he worked with didn’t connect with school. They only knew what it meant to live for today. They had been given many reasons not to trust others, especially those in authority. This teacher described the extremely-challenging school year he had faced trying to motivate these youth to connect with him, and the subject he was attempting to teach them.  After many false starts, he finally found a way to make the subject relevant to their real-life experience. He tapped into something they cared about and before he knew it, they were owning their own learning. This teacher was seasoned, yet moving to a new environment forced upon him feelings of irrelevancy and even incompetency. However, as he allowed himself to die to what he knew, he actually discovered new life through the eyes of others.2016 culminated in an annual celebration of a Christmas redeemer who modeled to humankind the paradox that, if you want to ascend, you first must learn to descend. Our innate drive is to run away from discomfort, cover over pain, and indulge in what feels good. And when the starry-eyed ambitions of January fade into the disappointments that inevitably come our way, may we lean into the lessons they offer and open our hearts to love a little more, knowing we’re on this regeneration journey together.

tt-blog-spark_o2by Marlo Fox for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Marlo's work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

The Gift of Community


As a small child, my favorite thing about the holidays were the gifts. I was always excited to reveal the surprises under the Christmas tree and I would spend time weeks before writing my wishlist of toys. Today, it’s a little different. I am growing up some and my perspective of the holidays has started to change. I have discovered that Christmas really isn’t about presents, it’s more about the unity of the season. Although December is the coldest month in the year, I have always associated it with the warmest feelings. People come together, my family refrains from fighting, and my grandma smiles more. Unfortunately, I am beginning to notice that the holiday season is continuously becoming less about unity and giving, and more and more about receiving material things. I see people that are so concerned about their kid getting the latest toy craze or getting the biggest ham at the market. Are we missing an opportunity? I think the holidays can be time to intentionally fill  the void of poverty and come together to celebrate community. During my internship at Think Tank, I have been introduced to trainings and materials that help people better understand poverty. Recently, we have had some conversations about the holiday giving program called Adopt a Family. Now, at first glance, it seems like a pretty good idea, right? I mean, a family in need gets presents and you get to feel good about helping them. What could possibly be bad about that? Well, from the perspective of someone who has been raised by a single mom who has worked her tail off to provide financially for me, I can tell you -- this whole Adopt a Family program doesn’t seem like a very good idea to me. I think many years the holidays caused a great deal of anxiety and stress for my mom. She would worry about how she could afford the expenses of gifts -- should she pay rent or buy me the doll I wanted? Time was also a stressor. Many people look forward to the extra time at the holidays -- taking a short vacation and being with family. This was not true for my mom. For many years, we didn’t even get to celebrate the holiday on Christmas morning, because she had to work. I used to be really angry that she had to work on Christmas morning. Today, I am grateful for what Mom has taught me about sacrifice and being a hard worker. I think about if we had the opportunity to be adopted during the holidays. I imagine what it would be like from the perspective of the parent. You have your children, who you would do anything for. The fear of not being able to give them a fulfilling Christmas scares you, and to be quite honest you feel like a bad parent. Along come people who have financial resources and they want to help. Your children are completely aware of the fact that these presents didn’t come from you. You couldn’t do this for your kids, but someone else can, and they get the enjoyment of seeing them open these gifts and smile, all while feeling good about the deed they've done. As a parent in poverty, there are a lot of times that leave you feeling vulnerable, and possibly, like a failing parent. Just imagine having to raise a child and do all of the grueling daily tasks as a parent, but not be able to feel like you’ve worked for anything, because you can’t even give your family the holiday that you think they deserve. Having another family get to do all of the fun parts really isn’t so fun. This is why I think the Adopt a Family strategy doesn’t seem like a very good idea. So, I’d like you to consider these suggestions: 1: Instead of buying gifts and bringing them directly to the family for them to open, bring the parent(s) shopping with you, or offer assistance less publicly. This can make the entire situation much more personal, and you get a chance to engage with the family rather than simply being someone who can bring them presents, because you have more resources than they do. 2: Take the children shopping for their parents. This would be a great opportunity to teach kids about giving. Although the holidays are in no way just about gifts, this is a good place to start.3: Invite the family to your holiday dinner! Not everyone is in poverty financially. Actually, there are a lot of people that are in poverty of education, faith, and relationships. Breaking isolation and coming together for food and fellowship can help with this. This Christmas, I plan to give the gift of community. Will you join me?


by Angel Canter for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Think Tank, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Moving From ME to WE


As I drove in between the stone pillars and up the long drive, I couldn't help but think -- this was not our typical spot for meetings...the country club. I am used to conference rooms, church basements and coffee shops for meetings in my line of work.I was the first to arrive. A hostess greeted me at the door and escorted me to a lovely room with a beautifully-dressed table. The atmosphere felt cozy with a large fireplace in the center of the room.The waitress arrived and immediately took my drink order. I couldn't help but wonder about her life. Did she have a family? Was she in poverty? What did she think of our reserved table for 13? I contemplated telling her that I worked for a nonprofit and the purpose of our dinner. Instead, I was quiet.Folks arrived. There were some familiar faces from our board of directors and some new faces. We made small talk. Soon, everyone was seated and introductions began.The waitress came back to the table and took our order. The standard three choices: salmon, chicken or steak. Then, my colleague did a brief welcome and purpose of our dinner -- "To talk about the work being done to create abundant communities." Specifically, how we can end poverty through holistic approaches and relationships. Folks were challenged to share their personal “why".This is when everything shifted for me.The people around the table were influential leaders. People with financial capital. People who know business and have been financially successful.They shared personal encounters of how they experienced community. Instances of when they felt rich... Times when they worked with young children in an urban setting... An instance when they recognized that a new community center was just a building; it needed people working together to bring it to life... And how they want their children to live out community and be challenged to think about poverty alleviation.I could tell when they shared their “why” that it gave them a feeling of abundance. A feeling of purpose and meaning. A feeling of connectedness and community. I felt the same way. When we share our stories, we make discoveries, discoveries about how connected we actually are and can be. We discover that more of our wealth can be found in the heart and mind, not always solely in the pocketPoverty isn't always about your paycheck. Poverty is complex. However, we all experience poverty, we all have parts of our life where we long for abundance. Sometimes we need more money or education. Sometimes we need more meaning and purpose in our lives. Sometimes we just need to feel more connected to others.I feel privileged to have these sort of conversations, because building abundant communities takes all kinds of people, each with the willingness to build each other up. Moving from ME to WE creates a rich environment.Being in relationship with others who want to do better, who want our world to thrive and not merely survive, is why I look forward to many more conversations about how to create community -- whether it be in a country club or a church basement.tt-blog-spark_o2by Heather Cunningham — to learn more about Heather’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

You're Not The Only One


One of the hardest things in a relationship is to remember that you're not the only one in it.It seems like a simple concept, something that you and I should totally be aware of, because, hey, a relationship means that's it 'not just me'. There's someone else in the room that is attached to you to your consciousness or state of being in some kind of definable or ambient way. A relationship means you are in relation with one another.A relationship means you aren't the only one.But we do forget that we aren't the only one. We do it a lot. We forget that we have a responsibility to prefer the other, our better, when we're in union with our partners. We sometimes get so caught up in monitoring ourselves and weighing our own thoughts, ideas, and feelings that we can forget to allow them to be present in our most intricate and minute actions.Oftentimes, we forget our partners, not just in our romantic partnerships, but often when we think about our world-at-large, when we think about the community. In fact, let’s talk about the phrase, "the community". It has been spat out among the masses from our civic leaders, our politicians, our faith leaders, our educators, and so on for so long in our national culture that it's largely become a benign expression to represent people who are connected by some sort of common people, place, or thing. In many respects, it's largely become an abstract euphemism to describe people who might be the center of urban planning projects. It's become a political phrase, a cliche.And we need to dignify it.The Community that we so often reference is actually the epitome of a relationship. It spiritually is Webster's definition of relationship on a macro-level; and when folks refer to The Community, there can often be a disconnect. A lot of times, even if we don't hear the disconnect in lifeless descriptions of these random, characterless people that we reference in our pontifications and declarations to one another, we feel the disconnect in our hearts. And we have the nerve to wonder why the various Communities that we all have spoken of, with their vague and numerous problems and inconveniences, don't ever seem to find the solutions that we figure are so simple or beget the answers we feel are so clear. It's because we have forgotten about those same random, characterless people in our hearts and only really focused on ourselves. Here's what I'm getting at -- if we seek to help solve the problems that are affecting our collective ability to commune with each other and come together to solve problems that affect our world as a whole, including our own geographical pockets of the globe, we must remember that we aren't the only ones in the relationship, we aren't apart from The Community -- we are a part of The Community. We and The Community are one and the same. We're just we.You cannot fix within what you do not acknowledge is present. All a community is, is a band of people who are in relation with humanity or some product of it. And when we address The Community, be it large or small, we must address ourselves in the dictation -- not as we might do thoughtlessly and with laissez-faire, but with mindful intention. We must decrease and allow our neighbors the space to increase. Again, we are not apart in a community.  In a healthy community, we are together and in congress, giving one another the floor to think, feel, and act with respect for our wellness as a whole, both literally in flesh and in spirit.Just as you might show respect for your spouse and you think of them, mindfully and intentionally, as you act upon the plans that you have in your heart and mind, so it goes that we should do the same for the Communities in which we belong.Because, after all, that's what you would do in your relationship...right?tt-blog-spark_o2by Sandy Dover for Think Tank, Inc. -- to learn more about Think Tank, please visit thinktank-inc.org

The Lonely Islands


A think piece cultivated from the upcoming book Radical Alliances by John White.


"Of all the places you have traveled in the world, which is the most impoverished?"

The little nun from Albania considered the question which had been posed by the reporter in front of her.She'd sacrificed everything and moved to Calcutta, devoting her life to caring for the poor and needy. After decades of living in obscurity, this sister of mercy had gained international fame, largely because of the books and articles that had been written about her. Though small in stature, she would go on to become one of the most powerful figures in the Christian world. So, when Mother Teresa answered the question, she spoke softly:

"I have been to many countries and seen much poverty and suffering, but of all the countries I have been to, the poorest one I have been to is America. America suffers most from the poverty of loneliness."

These words at the time may have been shocking to some, but were they unfounded? Perhaps Mother Teresa was referring to the weakening of community life in America. Neighborly friendships are slowly fading, as is the notion of mutual accountability and “it takes a village” stuff. The civic culture of years past has been replaced by individualism and personal isolation. Martin Luther King Jr. echoed the sentiments of Mother Teresa in 1964, while making the acceptance speech for his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize. He commented on the desperation of America's poverty. Dr. King said:

"In a sense, the poverty of the poor in America is more frustrating than the poverty of Africa and Asia. The misery of the poor in Africa and Asia is shared misery, a fact of life for the vast majority; they are all poor together as a result of years of exploitation and underdevelopment. In sad contrast, the poor in America know that they live in the richest nation in the world, and that even though they are perishing on a lonely island of poverty they are surrounded by a vast ocean of material prosperity."

In recent years, there has been increasing debate surrounding an apparent trend in our country: a divided America. Some would call our current state a "two class" or "two caste" America. In fact, a former Presidential candidate John Edwards built his entire campaign around the notion of ‘Two Americas.’ Regardless of the debate and variety of viewpoints, it is inescapable. We can see and sense the different castes around us. We can recognize the separation and segregation woven into our society. The temptation, upon seeing these divisions, is to ignore it or assign blame rather than taking the time to step back and examine the reasons for these divisions.People find a way to live in their own little pockets of reality. Whether in poverty, middle class or wealth, many of us have become increasingly isolated. Whether living in a wealthy community or an impoverished neighborhood, people sometimes come to accept isolation as the norm. Is the norm in your community marked by drugs, crime, despair, and family brokenness? Get used to it, says this isolation mentality. Or, is your neighborhood marked by stay-at-home moms, soccer camps, tennis lessons, and yearly family vacations to the beach? For many living in poverty, this chasm of separation is too vast to bridge.Many cities are seeing this geographical and cultural separation between the impoverished and the middle & upper classes as a threat to the very relational glue and fabric that holds neighborhoods and communities together. Not only do these divisions foster a distorted view of reality, but they also rob our communities of the cultural richness and spirit of collaboration needed for growth and human flourishing. The beauty of blending socioeconomic classes was a strength in America for decades. This blending compelled people towards a civic duty to look out for one another, to get involved in community initiatives, and solve neighborhood problems together. That unraveling of civic culture is a threat. I am reminded daily of the need for my heart and mind to be penetrated to reflect on my own defaults that seek comfort and ease. My tendency is to run away from pain or sorrow, which can prevent me from fully seeing and understanding the very pain and and sorrow of my own communities that face poverty, loneliness and oppression.If I -- no, if we have any conscience about loving our neighbors and being accountable to our neighbors, we must cross the rivers of false superiority, with a deep recognition and understanding of our common brokenness. No matter what we have in our pocket, or not have in our pocket we need each other to thrive and live a life of meaning, purpose and the ultimate richness as God’s image bearers.We should challenge ourselves to make the voyages across the ocean of material prosperity.We must persevere through the oceanic ripples and tides of spiritual absenteeism and vacantness that might take us off-course to engage our communities..We must intentionally break out of our lonely islands.cave-984030_1280

by John White — to learn more about John’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

The Laws of Order (Time & Love)


I'm in that stage of parenting where you wake up one day and realize you've made it past the survival days, where the kids needed you for everything, only to realize that you're staring the teenage years in the face. There is something about this part of the journey that offers a crystallizing glance at the big picture. Perhaps it's the fact that my window of center-stage influence seems to be closing in, based upon the increasing presence of their friends. Or, just awareness of the everpresent reality that the clock is always ticking.My favorite part of parenting is talking to my kids about the good and hard lessons of life. I love to see them wrestle with things they are slowly able to understand and in the process develop foundational values and wisdom for life. In reality, though, much of my ability to shape their character comes more from what I do than what I say. Recently, a thought occurred to me that the legacy that my husband and I will pass on to our children will mostly be comprised of how we treat each other and how we order our lives. Think Tank, Inc. lost two cherished friends this month. When eternity touches time, we are reminded of what matters most. As I watched the tributes to loved-ones-passed fill my social media feed, I didn’t learn much about their hobbies. I didn’t hear about their awards at work or the titles they held. What I did hear was stories of embracing vulnerability with courage. I heard stories of risk and sacrifice for the cause of justice. I heard stories of practical strangers or mere acquaintances being touched by one gracious encounter. Stories of how faith in God has the power to meet us in the pit and sustain us for every good work.  I couldn’t help but be moved by the fabric of community that can be woven around every life. Yet, knitting takes intention. Relationships have to be fostered and there are too many distractions that can get us sidelined from what matters most.  This week in my reflection and solitude I have some important questions to ask myself. Am I ordering my life around things that matter most, or am I pursuing myself and my comfort? Am I taking every opportunity to be fully present in my family and my community and offer love and grace in my interactions with others?Will you take some time to ask yourself the same?


by Marlo Fox — to learn more about Marlo’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

DO vs. BE


I'm grateful to have a wealth of mentors in my life. I am surrounded by people who have wisdom and are willing to share it. Real leaders. People who do all sorts of things. Young and old. Men and women. Rich and poor. Their relationships help me do what I do.Last night, I was having a conversation with one of these mentors. He is a man I look up to and respect. He has a wonderful sense of humor and likes to challenge me in any opportunity he gets. There are a few things in life he takes very seriously -- his relationship with Christ, his family, politics, and -- of course -- golf.I often look to him for wisdom on parenting. He has three daughters who are now adults. From what I can tell, he did a pretty good job raising them. I ask him parenting questions all the time. Questions about college, drugs, sex, peer pressure, discipline, and the list could go on and on.I have a teenager-- you get it… . Parenting an adolescent is sometimes like driving into an unfamiliar territory without your GPS. It can be a wonderful journey, but it would be a little less stressful if you knew exactly where to turn.So, I asked the question, "How did you talk to your girls about drinking? Did you tell them they weren't allowed to do it?" I got a response I wasn't expecting."No, I didn't talk at all about the do. I talked about the 'be'," he said.He explained, “As parents, my wife and I focused less on what-to-do or not-to-do, but shifted the conversations with our children to, ‘What do you want to be? Who do you want to be? How do your choices affect who you will be?’ We didn't talk much about the 'do'.”Wow. It's just two letters. Two words.DO or BE? So simple. So powerful.We don't ask the BE question enough. I think about our with families in poverty. How many times have I completely overlooked this? Going straight to the to-do list. Get a job, enroll in school, go to counseling, get housing and do,do,do...We need to shift the conversation and begin asking different questions. What do you want to be? Where would you like to be in the future? What will influence who you want to be?We have to explore purpose and meaning. This isn't the stuff that we can chart out on a case plan or measure with a matrix. This is the stuff in our soul. Why I am I here? What are my God-given gifts? Who am I intended to be?I'm thankful I have so many people in my life. People willing to share their personal insight and experience. Young and old. Men and women. Rich and poor. Their relationships help me BE who I am.


by Heather Cunningham — to learn more about Heather’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Four Ways To Ruin Your Life


My name is John White, and I had the honor to serve four terms in the Ohio House of Representatives. During my service, my focus was to encourage Ohio's faith communities to partner with state and local governments to help solve the most difficult social problems facing our state. The following experience gave me a fresh clarity on the opportunity we have to engage those communities that are ready to tackle the issues surrounding returning citizens.

I had my reservations about traveling two and a half hours to Marion Correctional Institute in central Ohio. I had plenty of reasons not to go. It was icy -- in fact, black ice lay on the road that morning, and it was cold. I was just going as a favor to the warden who I admired and heard much about. However, I, already disdainful about the inconvenience, turned around after slipping a little and started to go back home. Then something got my attention and told me to get back on the highway and GO. I’d like to think it was the Holy Spirit and that I heard the voice of God. That makes good piety, but maybe it was just a guilty conviction that I didn’t want to let her down. Either way, I can look back now and see…more on that later.That wintery morning, I had a nagging temptation to be lazy and just stay home. I was a legislator and had reached my goal. What else was there to learn? Besides, I didn’t know what to expect and didn’t want to be embarrassed. It could be awkward. It could be very uncomfortable. It was self-talk time! “John do the hard stuff today to be the person you want to be tomorrow. After all this is what I tell my kids to do.” (I probably got that line from some cheesy motivational poster on a wall somewhere). At this moment I had an internal street fight on my hands. Marion won.

Snarling barbed-wire fencing. A dreary day on a dreary piece of land with a dreary welcoming. Bars…lots of bars and locked doors everywhere. I couldn’t move. It took 25 minutes just to get into the place. Everywhere you move, security doors slam shut behind you. “Empty all your pockets!” I shoved down the impulse to shout, “Hell’s bells, don’t you know who I am? Weren’t you expecting me?” And then, there they were. 300 men stuffed into a room singing gospel hymns. A choir of 40 men; Black, White, Latino, old, young. There were clearly some grandfathers in here, probably some sex offenders in for life. They were in awkward choir robes and amazingly proud of it. All were holding hands singing aloud and sometimes off key. Tattooed, arms raised high, unashamed. A rank, sweaty-men smell permeated the room. They were unashamed and clearly free. Two giant men surround me. They were both lifers. On my right, a Black man revealed he was locked up for murder. On my left, a White man admitted his Aryan Nation leadership and former hatred of anything not him. Their arms were raised, tears in their eyes. Not me! I’m not buying it yet. I’m holding back and my shield is on to anything that disrupted my facade, my comfort of how I saw the world or needed to see the world to protect my long-developed mental box. I witnessed the experience of forgiveness and repentance as they all got on their knees, celebrating oneness through their Creator. I opened my eyes and looked around, still a skeptic. But what I saw was a joy that was raw, unvarnished, palpable and honest.


I felt naked and vulnerable. I was disrupted. This was not what I expected. I hadn’t even given a speech yet, or even been introduced. They probably couldn’t care less about my visit. They had found meaning, purpose and a divine and sacred brotherhood in the bowels of a medium-security prison in the middle of nowhere. They said that they were going to pray for me, asked about my family, and offered to write. They didn’t ask for anything in return. It was as authentic as anything I had ever seen before. I was numb and my chest was pounding, but I felt as alive as never before. Surprisingly, I didn’t want to leave. I hugged as many as I could grab to say goodbye and that I was coming back to see them. I wanted to worship with them again, an experience that was as powerful as I have ever felt in the grandest of cathedrals. This was a holy ground, I thought, and the whole place (some 2000 men and staff) all knew that it was different. I felt beaten up, penetrated, small, ruined and renewed!


What did I discover that day…what was God wanting me to see? Why was I feeling so rich and honored, and yet a little unworthy to be a part of this? How does this work? What program in that prison makes this stuff happen? I think I saw more truth in that prison than I have seen in a lifetime of sermons and Christian books. I experienced a world that I wanted to see everywhere. The impact was as powerful as a blow to the head. Where can I find more of this? How do I get ruined every day in order to feel the joy in my heart now, and what does this have to do with being a better man, father, friend, legislator, leader, and Christian? I spent that day with imprisoned people considered to be the worst of sinners, only to end up ironically captivated by their freedom. What haunts me at this very moment is how many invitations I have ignored, because the road was too perilous, risky, and unknown. Even more tragic was the reality that I had been so sure of myself, that I thought there was nothing for me to learn. I didn’t realize how I had fenced myself in, not allowing myself to be moved by anything that would penetrate my protected and comfortable way that I saw the world, my community, and my neighbor. Before that day, I had never known anyone who went to prison and was completely humbled by the experience. As I drove into my lovely suburban neighborhood and pulled into my garage alone, I knew what I had to do...


by John White — to learn more about John’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Trust Is A Must

 improve-stageI recently enrolled in an improv class.Improv (short for improvisation) is a state of being and creating action without pre-planning. Commercially, improv is taught mainly as a comedic art-form. My first class, I stepped on the stage and the lights were shining bright in my eyes. Anxiety took over my body and my heart was pounding. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I make a fool of myself? Who in the group will be my ally? Trust became of overwhelming importance for me. So often, we forget trust is not something you automatically receive, but something that is earned. One essential ingredient to improv is listening. If you are able to hear your partner on the stage, then you can reflect, and work together to build the scene. You must trust that what they have to say is important and you are a team. In many cases, you are nearly strangers working together to build this beautiful story that includes lots of laughter. Patience is critical.This makes me think about the families we work with, who work to build a new life and move out of poverty. Often times we start the relationship as strangers. We cannot forget that we are on the same team, and the opposite of poverty is community. We have a bad habit of predetermining others’ needs and telling their story for them. We become impatient and forget to listen. We fail to recognize that we ALL have something important to contribute. We forget to trust them.I think we have something to learn from the art of improv to better build relationships across class lines to create stories of transformation. Here are a few lessons I've gleaned:

LISTEN | not just to react but to truly understand.


TRUST | step out on faith and remember just starting the conversation takes tremendous courage.


THERE IS AN AUDIENCE | our story is not just about us, but about the community who wants to be part of it.


HAVE FUN | it's important to enjoy the journey and laugh some along the way.

As I continue the improv class, I've gotten better at working with my team and creating scenes together. We are building trust. Trust comes from sharing stories with each other over and over again. Trust builds when we feel listened to. Trust gives us motivation to take on challenges, sometimes things we'd never consider doing on our own. Today, I went on the stage. The light was shining bright in my eyes. My heart was pounding again with anxiety. Our instructor said, "Just say something. You're doing great. It's your story."I can say anything. The courage it takes to be there is enough, I am not a fool. I have allies surrounding me waiting to listen and create a new story with me.by Heather Cunningham -- to learn more about Heather’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org