Why I Talk to Jehovah’s Witnesses

WitnessesYears ago, when I finally put my last name on the front door bell of my home in Amsterdam, I began getting visits from Jehovah’s witnesses.  Not just any run-of-the-mill witness, but Portuguese and Brazilians who noticed my last name and figured – here’s a guy we can talk to! 

Sure enough, each time they rang, I would come out to greet them. Usually it was the kindest elderly Portuguese couple that reminded me of all my favorite relatives. Other times I would chat with two middle aged Brazilian ladies who were always smiling and pleasant. In either case a long tradition began, the word was out: some Portuguese guy lives in that house and he’ll talk to you, he’ll even invite you in for tea sometimes.

Why would I, a person who has no religion and no desire for one, spend so much time chatting with people who are constantly asking me if I believe in all these religious names and writings?  My simple answer is- I live far from the Portuguese environment I grew up in back in New Jersey, I miss the daily contact and the language that brings me right back to my childhood and my family somehow. I’ll watch a copies of the newsletter pile up in my recycling bin; I’ll never turn one down. I’ll even dodge the question of whether or not I read the last one, so as not to hurt their feelings.

There is another reason I speak with Jehovah’s witnesses- the journalist in me is fascinated by people and their life missions.  I obviously have mine, right here on this website. And I know how hard it can be, to carry on, to be heard, and to keep your faith (in my case, faith in my own abilities).  I imagine my gentle Portuguese couple, walking the cold streets of Amsterdam, and getting doors slammed in their face.  It makes me sad and want to boost their spirits, by preparing the tea and asking questions about their home towns and their families.  Sure, they can ask me a few questions about god in exchange, it is a fair trade I suppose.

People probably think Jehovah’s Witnesses are weird.  Part of me does. But if I think longer about it, about all the beauty in a warm greeting and friendly conversation over tea, I’m reminded of all the other missions people have in this world that are deemed understandable.  People dedicated to making money. People dedicated to their partners or children. People dedicated to their art.  These things are not all the same, but I see a certain similarity between everyone and their personal missions.   Even those who’s mission is religions, one of my least favorite topics.

Not surprisingly, while I was visiting New Jersey in late 2012, I answered the door at my parents’ house.  There, standing before me, were two Brazilian Jehovah’s Witnesses asking for my father by name like he was an old friend.  “Is your father home? We normally chat with him and he always accepts our literature.”  

 

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The Promise of Employment

It is a formula that we decided decades ago makes sense and should therefore work. It is a recipe that for many people in the past decades, has worked to provide a decent life and what people often refer to as security as they look to the future. – You go to school, you do your training, and when you’re finished there will be a job for you somewhere, and it will be a job you want.

Nowadays this formula is less solid than it has ever been. There aren’t many jobs to go around, yet many are still doing the training and the degrees under the assumption that the old deal will still be honored.  As they come out and find the world is not quite what they thought, there is anger, frustration, and sadness across the board. Then come the protests and the campaigns, some speeches from politicians and average citizens, a few policies to try and re-animate that old connection between job training and job. Underneath all the activities and discussions there is a basic principle that remains, in this world as we have built it, you should be able to get an education which also prepares you for a career that once you’re met some set requirements, you can pursue.  After all, how else is it supposed to work?

The hardline voices in the wilderness will say — there are no guarantees in life. A statement that is easy to confirm.

But getting back to that old deal that we’re still trying to revive, here in Portugal one can observe the living breathing collapse and aftermath of that socio-educational correlation.  People young and old with degrees in social work, primary and secondary education, and a long list of other studies, find themselves either in the never-ending spiral of unemployment and job training, or the very common – working retail in a shopping mall. You might have the skills and training to help people in need or teach, but nowadays where you’re needed is selling iPods at the nearest strip mall.  Are these jobs terrible? No, not for everyone. But what happens when you’ve got a country full of social workers and educators selling jeans and flipping burgers? When people’s lives get placed on hold as they wait for that possible real job they trained and prepared for. When they decide not to have any children and to live at home forever to save something from their minuscule pay check?

The discussion is not new. It even finds its way into political discussions regularly these days. But the underlying principle should also be subject to scrutiny. Why believe in the formula anymore? There is not just one way to learn. There is not just one way to make a living. Hoping and working to repair a once functional system is perhaps a noble goal that bears the occasional fruit. But what about teaching each other to break out of the pattern. That if they continue to just wait for something to happen, instead of making something happen, they could be waiting for the rest of their unfulfilled lives.

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The Return to Afghanistan

Greetings from Kabul, dusty but determined capital of the country everyone has an opinion about: Afghanistan. For the second time in my life, I’ve arrived in Kabul.  No longer confused or intimidated with how things look or work (or don’t work), being back in this magic town is like starting your second year of high school. You’re far from mature and wise, but you’re better prepared and strangely comfortable.

KBL
The Familiar Hills of Kabul

Over the next 16 days as part of the intrepid Small World News training team, we will be working as part of the international media development organization Internews. The mission is to teach, train, guide, and share knowledge with aspiring journalists, film makers, new media producers with all manner of interests and objectives.  With our combined experiences, not to mention the unique experiences of these young people, we intend to better prepare them for the career that could lay ahead.

During the course of these trainings, I’ll be telling my own stories of what I see and what I hear, as always. But to be here in Afghanistan in 2011, one year after having been here for the elections of 2010, one prevalent feeling in the air (at least the air I breathe) is that at this point in global history, Afghanistan is no longer important. The international light that once shined on this place has grown dim, with those who wield it unwilling or unable to keep it on much longer. Whatever the typical time limit for attention and engagement this fickle and easily distracted world, it has been reached.  Listen to a political speech or a news analysis and you’ll hear what to many are good arguments to stop engaging in helping this nation rise from the decade old ashes. Yet here we are, not just Small World News, but so many dedicated people, who still come despite the risks, obstacles, and the criticism; who still work hard for a specific purpose.. helping people build a strong nation with a good foundation.  A foundation that took and will take substantial time and investment in various forms.

So it goes. Working in Afghanistan, for Afghanistan, long after it has gone out of style.

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I’m a Security Risk

PhoneThe tall blonde blue-suited airport security worker keeps looking down at his screen and up at my face in suspicion, “So you work for who?” I try to explain my different jobs as a citizen journalist, but he only seems to listen to half of what I say. From the very first question he has shot me looks of disapproval, of my job, of my nationalities, of my travel habits… to him there is something wrong with me. He goes on to ask what I find to be excessively personal questions about who my friends are and who I live with, which I politely refuse to answer. He calls over another man who is near the gate, watching all the pre-boarding interviews for passengers on their way to the US. This man, obviously a supervisor, looks at me, looks at his paper, and starts writing me up for a “full” security check. As the two men start to take me away from the gate the supervisor says “Sir, you’ll have to go for further security checks, your life is just too complicated for us.”

His words, and their faces, as a large part of my life lay before them, reminded me of a simple truth: I walk a different path, A very different path. And that path doesn’t fit easily into the boxes on a form, as so much of our lives are supposed to. When you don’t walk the familiar line, give the typical answers, you’re more often condemned then welcomed.

That’s not to say my path is miserable burden. I didn’t mean to lead you in that direction. Indeed I what I do brings me a great deal of joy and wonder, and yes, I would even say more appreciation then rejection.

Still there I am, heading to the basement of Schiphol airport to have every inch of my body and belongings searched. What are these strangers who barely look me in the eye searching for? Any easy way to understand my life perhaps? Something that makes sense to them, perhaps? Whatever it is, I’m not sure they ever find it. Some may get it, some may learn, adapt, and recognize something they never understood before. A different way of doing things that has value, in some form of another. Then again, some people never learn anything. The world goes on repeating some mistakes over and over, and the innocent suffer.

As the great street philosopher and drug dealer Poot once explained, “World going one way, people another yo.”

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