Sunday, October 30, 2011

Encounters with an Irrepressible Octogenarian

In my book I write about Richard Hawthorne, a Nottingham printer, who has built a web of friendships in his native UK city: "In the course of a day, a visitor moving through the city with Hawthorne might expect to meet a leading imam, the editor of the newspaper, the president of the chamber of commerce, and a director of human relations."

This was written following a whirlwind visit in 1999. Now at age eighty-one Richard has lost none of his irrepressible zest for life and remarkable gift of friendship for people in all walks of life in his native city. When I arrive with my young Dutch co-facilitator, Willemijn Lambert, at the start of an intensive week of talks and workshops in four English cities, Richard is waiting at the station eager to brief us on our program.

At one event we hear from Maxine, an Afro-Caribbean community activist who described her first encounter with Richard. "I thought, 'Who is this old white man?'" but now "Richard has become one of my best friends." They tease each other affectionately as we drive home with Richard attempting to navigate Nottingham traffic while talking non-stop. "Sometimes when we have community meetings in his home he is the only white person there," says Maxine.

We meet with Dr Musharraf Hussain, Director of the Karimia Institute, a leading British Muslim organization which works on a range of projects including community development, adult classes, and interfaith work. At his invitation we lead a workshop on "honest conversation" for young men and elders in his community center and do two radio interviews for the center's Radio Dawn.

Later I speak at a public seminar hosted by Nottingham's interfaith council. The Lord Mayor opens the evening by welcoming me to the city and although the event officially concludes at 9:15 and his official car is waiting outside neither he nor the rest of the audience seem anxious to end the dialogue.

The next morning at BBC Radio Nottingham, where we record another interview, Richard greets his local member of parliament. And so it goes on.

Richard, who was "painfully shy" as a young man, says his outreach to the Nottingham  community began many years ago with a realization that "Britain had recruited people from the Caribbean and Pakistan to do the work we did not want to do and we were treating them as second-class citizens." Sitting in his car one morning he "felt an inner call to open my heart to people I had kept at arm's length."

I think it is safe to say that there are few people in Nottingham today who have opened their heart and their home to so many people. As we drive off to our next stop, Bradford, Richard's booming laugh sends us on our way. He is already preparing for his next community meeting that evening.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

From Chaos to Community

A few months ago I took a call from Harold Vines. I had not heard from Harold since the late nineties when he came to take part in a Hope in the Cities training retreat for community leaders in Richmond. Harold told me he had seen the advance notice of The Trust Factor in Washington, DC. He had recently retired from the board of the Servant Leadership School (an outgrowth of the Church of the Saviour) in the Adams Morgan neighborhood and he wanted me to meet his friends. A few days later he introduced me to the executive director, Joseph Deck, and other colleagues. Harold said that after reading my book, “I had to ask myself, ‘Am I trustworthy?’”

Joseph Deck was immediately enthusiastic and took a copy of Trustbuilding to read. Before long he had offered the Festival Center on Columbia Avenue as a “hub” for The Trust Factor. This act of generosity has been typical of the diverse team that has come together in Washington to host this week’s activities.  Four partner organizations are giving event space without charge. Others are contributing pro bono staff time and facilitation skills. Some only met each other for the first time in recent weeks but are taking responsibility wholeheartedly. It is a creative, selfless pattern of partnership, a demonstration of trust.   
Throughout the Trust Factor week we will be in dialogue with people involved in trustbuilding in business, economics, on university campuses, and in the community. We’ll learn how people are drawing on their different faith traditions to face personal challenges and to sustain their work, and we’ll work on tools for racial healing and equity. “Civic Participation and Responsibility in Building Trust in Public Life” is the theme of the all-day session on Saturday which features a public dialogue with three remarkable leaders of both conservative and liberal backgrounds representing African American, European American, and more recent Asian immigrant communities.

What better time for Washington – and the world – to hear this message of trustbuilding? "Occupy Wall Street", the protests in Greece, and the ongoing struggle for democracy in Arab counties all indicate a deep mistrust of existing political establishments and a disconnect between those in positions of privilege or power and the majority who feel disenfranchised.

When our advance team arrived at the Festival Center a few days ago four men were sitting in the entrance lobby. Joseph Deck introduced us as the organizers of The Trust Factor. One older African American man exclaimed: “Trust! If we could get to trust we could move from chaos to community!” It turned out the group had been studying Martin Luther King’s final book: Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?  Next Sunday King’s memorial will be unveiled on the Mall. What better tribute could we pay to this great prophet of reconciliation and justice than to commit ourselves to building a sustained trustbuilding movement on which to build a fair and inclusive America?