The Living Faith

I am often overwhelmed by the options in the universe. There are billions of ways to live a life and perceive the world–no wonder my generation remains so indecisive and unfocused. I miss the days in my childhood where the world seemed so simple and linear. That abruptly changed for me one pre-teen summer when I became aware of death as a reality that everyone must face. Knowing this fact made me consider what comes next after death (I suppose I preferred to think that souls are eternal). Contemplating the many possibilities of what could happen was making me more and more uncertain about anything else except that death was fact. I knew that whatever I would believe would happen after death would inevitably change the way I see everything that happens before death–causing everything I previously perceived about life and the afterlife come into question.

But I was a Christian and knew that I shouldn’t question God’s word, yet I did anyway. I laid awake for hours every night travailing over these questions. What I didn’t know then is that questions like those are essential to building a stronger faith. When I thought I was destroying my faith with these questions, I was really making it more alive. My favorite theology book, Faith Seeking Understanding by Daniel L. Migliore, states in the first chapter that the Bible is not an easy answer book. If it were so, it would be a caged system where our creative souls would become stagnant and stale. But, oh, is the Bible full of imploring, terrible questions! On the cross Christ obtested “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” To his disciples he asked, “Who do you say I am?” In the Book of Psalm, David pleaded, “Why LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” Migliore writes “When faith no longer frees people to ask hard questions, it becomes inhuman and dangerous.”

Thomas, one of Christ’s disciples, is nicknamed by many as “Doubting Thomas” because he wanted the hard evidence that Christ was risen. Christians have often rebuked this way of thinking and have scoffed at Thomas for centuries over his little faith however he was making clear that our Lord and Savior is indeed risen. My Christian faith may not look like anyone’s I know, making it difficult for me to find a spiritual community, but I can’t deny the questions I have. I can’t pretend these questions aren’t real or to have answers. Frankly, I doubt I’ll ever find answers for my endless questions, but Christ didn’t ask for that anyway. It’s not about our deeds, knowledge, or intelligence; it’s about our faith. Death is a reality for faith, too, so by relentlessly pursuing hard questions we keep our faith alive.
On Easter we celebrate new life, rejuvenation, and of course, Christ’s resurrection. Wouldn’t it be fitting this season to freshen stale faith with crisp and budding questions? Faith is risen when we implore and it grows as we become challenged.

Teaching to ESL (um, help?)

Try to imagine that you are on a new planet and the people there are telling you how to do things their way–specifically, obtain employment–and you can only pick up on a few words because they use a different language that you haven’t mastered yet. On top of the obvious cultural and language barriers, you also receiving mental health services, so you may have a learning disability, a mood disorder, be developmentally disabled, or some other mental health condition that can be a functional limitation.

That is my class. I teach vocational skills to limited English proficient people (LEP) with mental health disabilities. When I describe it to people outside my field or agency, I usually say it’s like a combination of ESL, special ed, and vocational skills class all rolled into one. Technically, it’s defined as a vocational skills class and leaves out the most challenging aspects: the ESL and mental health parts.

What dilemmas I currently face when planning lessons and carrying out instructions is how to get the point across to our clients who may not understand concrete or abstract concepts due to their MH status or LEP. Here are my two thoughts and why:

  • People with disabilities may have a learned helplessness that impacts their ability to take personal responsibility to the information presented to them about proper techniques of job searching and employment retention. Many of my clients expect someone to find them a job. When was the last time some of them have sought out something on their own–and accomplished that goal?
  • People with disabilities may not really take into account the reality of the job market and how cutthroat it truly is out there because they haven’t been in a competitive job marketplace in a long time if ever. A lot of our clients also come from employment systems that are by nature non-competitive as they previously lived in refugee camps. 

These are only developing theories, however, and don’t have any substantial evidence. I am planning on doing extensive research on our clients and their demographics to help determine any supporting evidence to my hypotheses that they are disabling themselves from learning new information based off their learned helplessness and previous exposures to the job market.

Apart from those two dilemmas is the problem of communicating abstract or even concrete subjects to LEP and people with MH issues. Imagine you are on that planet again. What are they trying to tell you? What are they saying and writing down? You can only:

  • Make an educated guess that they’re talking about the main subject of the class: how to find and keep a job.
  • You might even assume that the way to go about finding and keeping a job on this planet is different than the way you would do it in your home planet (although you may not have an idea as to HOW different the system works).
  • You try to figure out as much as you can from observations of nonverbals and context.
  • You assume that when the instructor writes something on the board, it’s important, so you write it down, too. Hopefully later you actually use a dictionary to look it up…if you remember, or if you can.

In the end, how do you feel? You just spent an exhausting 2 hours trying to figure this out and yet you still don’t have a job. To protect my clients from feeling discouraged, I try to make it clear to them that learning anything–even 10% of what we covered–is important and definitely better than nothing. Is it worth the 2 hours? Yes. What would your otherwise plans be anyway? It’s definitely worth it.

I don’t have a TESOL certificate or any special education credentials, not even proper mental health training, unfortunately. What I do is rely on my exposure to ESL teaching and education for lesson planning and implementation. I’m a fan of bullet points today, so here’s another bulleted list of what techniques I use in class:

  • I use a lot of visuals. I try to rely on visuals to represent ideas as much as possible. If you can’t learn from the words or language, then hopefully you can pick up the idea from the images.
  • I use task-analysis to break down big or abstract concepts. For example: How to Improve Your Weaknesses. Step 1: write down any 5 things you don’t well. Step 2: organize them from greatest to least. Step 3: provide an example of those weaknesses, how they impair your job search, and what measurable things you can do to improve them (goals). Step 4: write the goals down on your calendar.
  • I teach with discovery/inquiry approach. Instead of providing a vomit of information to my class, I’ll ask them a question, such as “What are interviews?” and have the class answer. They have to be awake for this. They have to be paying attention. They have to take responsibility here. They also get a time to shine if they know the answer or try to answer. I always praise them to keep them encouraged.
  • I do role plays. This helps apply abstract thoughts into something tangible. This also allows the class to interact.
  • I do hands-on group projects, such as having the class sort through pictures of different articles of clothing to determine and show what appropriate interview attire is and is not.
  • I let them practice with each other in pairs or small groups. I’ll give them some review questions and as a group they have to discuss the answer. I try to pair groups according to language level.
  • I give them choices. To encourage participation, I give the class a few options on how to complete a task or project. 

I really see a lot of different learning styles come to play here but I also see a need for pedagogical improvement. I’m exploring the option of taking TESOL classes, but not sure if that will benefit the work that I do as I don’t actually teach ESL but instead teach to ELL’s. I’m open to resources, courses, or any ideas, so if you have any of these to share, please let me know!

Silly Politics! You Make Me Laugh

Over the past few years, I’ve been increasing my interest in politics because I have learned that it not only involves every aspect of my life but it has also replaced my need for superficial reality TV. I was all about Sarah Palin in 2008 because she supplied comedy for me on a regular basis (nothing gets better than real life stupidity—jokes are just redundant). In politics, the jokes just keep coming: a couple religious men are making decisions on women’s health (so funny, because they think it’s still 1943!), rich politicians saying they can relate to average Americans (it’s like when Pepé Le Pew doesn’t realize he’s a skunk), and best of all, middle class Americans really believe these guys. Like, who on earth actually wants to support rich White men become richer and more oppressive?

Sociology has a lot to say about this. It’s called social identity theory (SIT)and you better watch out for it or it might bite you! According to SIT, people tend to classify themselves into different social categories (known as in-groups), which by association yields people to in-group pressures. Everyone is susceptible to this and it can get pretty nasty. It’s essentially the foundation of racism where people start associating themselves in one social category and build up their self-esteem by making positive statements about their in-group. Their association enables them to blindly follow whatever their in-group says and believes, even if it is wrong or hurts them as members of the in-group. Examples of this are the Nazi party and the Hutus in Rwanda. In the U.S., our group associations haven’t gotten us that far but I can clearly see SIT coming to life before my very eyes when I see how many of the conservative Americans are supporting politicians who aren’t offering them any help. In fact, many of these politicians have several plans to hurt their supporters, like raising their taxes and withdrawing healthcare coverage. These guys are not in our best interests, yet we support them anyway.

I love the interview Jon Stewart has with Bruce Bartlett about lowering the tax on the rich while raising the taxes for everyone else. Jon asks rhetorically, “Who does that appeal to? What is that even politically aimed at?” Bruce responds by saying it doesn’t make logical sense. Seriously, the best source of comedy is politics. What isn’t funny about Americans supporting plutocracy?

State vs. Church?

Today Governor Gregoire signed a bill that would allow Washington to be the seventh state to recognize same-sex marriage. I commend our governor in making a controversial decision in the direction of human rights. My support for legalizing gay marriage is not uncommon in my liberal city, Seattle, but I am of the minority in the Christian community to have such an opinion. 

My religious opinion about homosexuality is another story because it’s  irrelevant to the political topic of gay marriage. I also think that religious beliefs have nothing to do with politics, yet somehow the political system allows for this shenanigan to go on. I do not feel that the gay community has any threat to the Christian faith and I don’t feel that the Christian faith—or any faith—should have the right to dictate how anyone lives.

What difference does it make to me if my gay neighbors get married? To me, it’s a title change that has no effect on my life whatsoever but to them it’s a breakthrough, it’s liberation, and it’s a right. I also believe it’s a right. What power should religion have in governing the public life? It’s time that we really believe in what we always talk about: the separation of religion and government. (Why is it that the religious only complain that there isn’t enough separation from church and state when it is the state that crosses the line, but never if the church crosses the line?) If I don’t believe in the government intervening in my life in telling me what to believe, how to live my life, and how to act, then I shouldn’t have the double standard in making the government control how others live their lives based on my Christian beliefs. If we want a free, democratic country, then this is what we get: liberty and justice for all. Approving gay marriage is not restricting my liberty or justice in any way. Those who oppose gay marriage, abortion, and women in combat and other such issues are going against our country’s desire for freedom and for government to stay out of our business. Opposing gay marriage is essentially a support for “big government” and for politicians to tell us how to live our lives.

Maybe I don’t get why Christians want to work so hard at fighting gay marriage, but it seems like these Christians haven’t really thought through that move. If we were to go along with that principle—that religion should intervene in our politics—then what do you say we ban all meat in our country so we don’t offend the Hindus? Wait, wait, no. We don’t want that to happen! We only want government to intervene when it favors Christian teaching, am I right? 

“Who are YOU?”

said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I–I hardly know, sir, just at present– at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

In a training I had recently for work, we spent some time on a section called “Dealing with Diversity” (a classic title that always has me shaking my head) and we were told to write down at least five cultural dimensions that reflect who we are. Just for fun, I encourage you to also do this before reading further.

Here’s what I wrote:

  • Faith
  • Multiethnic
  • Low income
  • Single/independent
  • Female
  • A liberal
  • College graduate
  • Native English speaker
  • Non-profit employee
  • World traveler

…there are of course, many other dimensions to me, as to all of us.

Then we were asked to share how we are stereotyped by some of our cultural associations. Take a moment and think about some ways you might also be stereotyped by what you put down on your list and how some of those stereotypes may  not be accurate to you.

This exercise I think helped many of us understand that you can’t just judge a book by its cover. I believe that stereotypes work only as a framework to suggest possibilities when interacting with individuals or communities, but not to be used as assumptions or labels. It’s a pretty important thing for me to remember as I work in an Asian counseling center with a vast range of diversity among primarily the Asian Pacific Islander population in Seattle. Lots of dynamics there.

I won’t mention them all, but here are some assumptions often made about a couple of my cultural aspects: 1) my Christian theology and my liberalism are mutually exclusive. Most Christians I have interacted with assume I have more conservative values and most liberals I interact with assume I am not a Christian based on my liberal opinions. 2) Because I am a native English speaker and fluent in the dominant North American culture, people assume this is who I am. In fact, I don’t always feel like I can associate myself with the dominant American culture; such is true otherwise: I do not always feel like I can relate to the Latin culture and ethnic groups.

Based on the two observations above, I don’t feel that there is one predominate culture group I associate myself with. I’m so evenly divided in many cultural aspects and I’m afraid I have slipped between the socio-politico cracks. I find myself in the gray area, the no-man’s land of culture because I am unique.

But aren’t we all? The purpose of the cultural exercise is, of course, to show how none of us fit exactly into a cookie cutter. At least, those of us who live in a non-homogenous culture. The best that we can offer when interacting with others is the respect that we may all feel differently, view things differently, make decisions differently, and believe differently. Like Alice, we probably change several times a day that who’s to be sure of who we are?

Concern for Too Liberal Attitudes and Social Immorality

The city I live in is very open socially and politically. We’re an extremely liberal culture. While it’s great to live in a place where everyone is free to be who they are and want to be, there is a negative counterpart where the appreciation of all lifestyles starts to ignore the individual and community well-being as everything is tolerated and accepted. The liberal outlook has and will always have the potential to lose values altogether in that the postmodern dictum “it’s all good” starts to see everything on the same platform with no hierarchy of morals. I have heard too many times the opinion that people should be allow to sell their bodies for sex if they want to. Actually, one of my co-workers mentioned this saying that she thinks people should have the right to sell their bodies if they want. I often hear people defend others extreme lifestyles by saying “well, it’s their choice. It makes them happy,” or even “as long as their happy, I guess it works”. There comes a point when it’s not OK, and not everything is good. When you level everything out you end up with a one dimensional worldview that ignores the dark realities of life that are important to understand so that people and communities can live even better, even healthier, even happier lives.

I am not opposed to liberalism, as I do consider myself among the socially and politically liberal, people start advocating for prostitution, for example, I become concerned for the moral standards that we may be losing. Selling one’s body is wrong, just as purchasing someone for sex is also wrong. I understand the difference between sex trafficking and prostitution, but they are not totally unlike each other. Those who believe that sex trafficking is totally different than an adult choosing to sell their bodies, they don’t see that the end result is still the same: that the emotional, physical, sexual, abuse involved in this industry does destroy a person’s happiness and well-being. No matter if you chose this profession or you were trafficked into it, your body is still being bought and sold as a commodity, which has major and profound impacts on a person’s life. Saying that it should be legal and not looked down upon if a person chooses to involve themselves in this trade is ignoring the multi-faceted issue and is a judgement with no substantial basis. It’s even hypocritical. Disagreeing that prostitution or other controversial things should be legalized isn’t the opposite of liberalism and I would hope that those who think it is would take a second look at the issue and not blanket such things with catchphrases like “it’s all good”. Liberalism should not have to accept and justify everything.

Not accepting or justifying everything isn’t a sign of intolerance for other cultures or socially restricting. I am concerned for our culture that refuses to see good and bad as a moral issue but instead sees good as “all things go” and bad as someone who disagrees with them. To me, it’s like an over-eating gluttonous person versus the anorexic. We need to exercise our judgements a little more so we can be more balanced in our lifestyle and how we care for our communities. We don’t want to overdo it on either end. I think a little more thinking and contemplation of morals in our city could do us good because we have diluted our morals and reduced our standards so much that we no longer see the suffering who are right in front of us. Having opinions of indifference to what people do with their lives isn’t making a stronger, freer society. And truly, I don’t think they’re happier.

A Traveler’s Advice

I went to Mexico when I was 16. This is the story of my first “international” experience:

We crossed the border with no problem. As soon as we were in Tijuana, it was obvious we were in another country. Suddenly the paved roads looked like they were made of dirt and the buildings and cars we drove past were all covered in layers of dust. Everyone was sweating, men and women would approach our van windows and try to sell us fruit, knock-off watches, vending machine toys, or wash our windows. All the houses were more or less shacks of poorly assembled scraps of wood, tin, or other material available. No windows. Doors were often replaced with a thread-barren dusty blanket. The street sounds were different, the radio station had changed several times as we passed through different districts. When we finally arrived to our destination, a faith-based orphanage for grades K-12, the five of us greeted the American missionaries who established the orphanage, were taken a brief tour of the grounds, and then rested in our rooms for dinner. Our lodging was similar to summer camp cabins, where we had a small room and bunk beds to ourselves. It was hot and the food was greasy, the Spanish language was everywhere but we usually tuned it out as we talked in English with the missionaries, the English learners, and ourselves. Usually language wasn’t an issue as we always had a translator and for the entire trip we played games with the children or helped build new buildings on the site. I remember the missionaries bragging about how they built this place out of nothing. That was my five day trip to Mexico, but I’ve never really been there.

Over the years I’ve been able to travel to more places, with different purposes, meet other travelers…all the while slowly defining what travelling really means. I’ve  mostly learned what traveling is not. It is not a vacation or a get-away. It isn’t something you can capture in photographs or bring back in souvenirs. It isn’t something others do—the experience is all yours and personally unique. Until you’ve made an experience only yours and made yourself vulnerable to the new environment, you haven’t really traveled.

Really seeing another place means doing so cross-culturally. Whether you traveled from New York to Namibia or from California to Colorado, it will be different. There may not be words to describe the feelings, impressions, sights and sounds, the smells… It’s best to travel alone or to have private explorations when you can. Going off the beaten path opens up a whole new world that may be precious, surprising, ugly, and uncomfortable. The value is more than words, pictures, or souvenirs can hold because it is a new reality. Understanding that first and foremost makes it important to consider the ethics of traveling when going to a new place.

Now for the three essential things a true traveler must always have:

Purpose: for whatever reason you are going, you must have one purpose: to radically experience. This means that you will be fundamentally challenged to some degree in the way you see the world, the way you believe in your Higher Power, and the way you thought you were. The purpose of the traveler is to experience life in a different way, unlearning the old and comfortable way.

Ethics: Being in another culture requires the foreigner to be humbled, no matter what status they have in their home country. Not only does this allow you a more authentic experience, but it’s part of being respectful to the locals and allowing them to teach you their way instead of vice versa. Tourists aren’t travelers. They are foreigners who insist on bringing their country with them in their spas, their beaches, their binoculars, their hotels, their shopping, etc. The ethical traveler will reap many benefits from simply being humble and accepting that you are the alien, the minority, and the one who doesn’t know anything yet willing to learn. It’s about cultural respect, communication, authenticity, community, and being wrong. This traveler will have a more enriched experience than the tourists and the local community will most likely enjoy your visit as well (and not be pissed off that you just ate all their food). You must also break away from your other travel buddies for some alone time in that place. Go and explore, wander, and be willing to get lost. Everything is different when you break away from the English conversations and tune your senses into the sundry sounds, smells, faces, etc.

Expectations: if you are traveling with the purpose to have a completely different experience and are in the mindset that your cultural habits probably won’t work in this new culture, then you have to expect some consequences. Yes, consequences! It’s not an easy, breezy journey. If it were so, then you probably didn’t come with the right purpose or ethics (in other words, you are a tourist). You will probably come across some bumpy times, some scary times, discomfort, frustration, hate, bitterness, as well as insight, surprises, blessings, friendships, and beauty. Ultimately, expect to grow as a person through all this. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. ~Romans 5:3-4.

Finally, I leave you with a quote from Daniel J. Boorstin:

“The modern American tourist now fills his experience with pseudo-events. He has come to expect both more strangeness and more familiarity than the world naturally offers. He has come to believe that he can have a lifetime of adventure in two weeks and all the thrills of risking his life without any real risk at all.” 

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