To Those Seeking Truth

If you are following my podcast on iTunes or SoundCloud (Look to See Me by Chris Pepple), you can find some of the transcripts of my episodes here.

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Hi, Listeners! I hope you are all having a wonderful week this week. Welcome back to Look to See Me, a podcast that invites you to look closer at the lives of people around you and to take time to hear their stories. I’m Chris Pepple and today I’m going to talk about something that I hope we are all doing—seeking truth.

Throughout the last five years or so, I’ve discovered how much false information is floating around on the internet through our social media sites and through websites that have been created to look like actual news. I had no idea that our society could become so full of misinformation. It’s happening because so many of us aren’t seeking the truth. We’re seeking self-validating stories and things that make us feel good about ourselves instead of things that are making us grow and think through who we are and who others in our communities are.

I’ve also discovered just how much I don’t know about our world and the people in it. I have a master’s degree and have been a lifelong learner even when not officially enrolled in school. I studied literature, a little astronomy, and lots of history. But I picked and chose what I learned about based on my own interests. I didn’t take time to see that I was ignoring topics that would have helped me understand the people around me better. I saw my life as only connected to a small group of people I associated with.

But life itself is bigger than any one person or group of people. Life and its accompanying breath and love and hope draw us all together in an interconnected bond that we often fail to realize. When we disconnect ourselves from the bigger picture, we lose part of our humanity and part of our connection to a love and a hope bigger than ourselves. We limit our view of what life is like and what all of the possibilities are. We also cut ourselves off from opportunities to be loved and to love. We remove ourselves from the people doing the healing work in the world—the people willing to get to know someone different from themselves and walk through some really tough truths to help another person.

When I look back over the podcasts I’ve done throughout the last two years, I’ve chosen topics that need a light shined on their truths…I’ve highlighted groups that really seek to know the truth about people and circumstances and work to help us see the truth about others. So that sounds great, right? Who doesn’t want truth after all? Well, I know I didn’t used to think much about truth. I went about my life not thinking that I needed to know much about others. I was a “good person” after all. I didn’t hurt others, and I was trying to do the best I could as a person.

But then it became personal for me—I needed someone to know my truth. I needed to quit pretending that everything was ok. I had been taught to wear a mask for years—to look like a sweet Southern girl with an amazing family that had no problems. I shouldn’t appear to have any struggles at all. A “smile-for-the-camera” girl. Sometimes we don’t stop to think about issues until they become personal for us—when we realize we can’t handle life on our own at the moment, but we don’t know who to turn to because we aren’t sure who will understand or even believe us. I can tell you how deeply it hurts to tell the truth and have no one care or believe you.

That’s what so many of the agencies I have highlighted are doing right—they are looking at the lives of real people and telling them, “We hear you and we believe you” They are standing with people who have historically been unheard or when heard, not believed. Why? Because there are topics we are uncomfortable talking about. We are much more comfortable remaining in the dark about certain areas of life. We don’t want to admit how badly some people are suffering in our world. We don’t want to acknowledge that domestic violence and child abuse happen in our neighborhoods—in our churches—and that few resources exist to truly help break the chains of abuse. We don’t want to admit that people we are close to became addicted to pain killers or to porn or to gambling or to alcohol. We don’t want to admit that many single parents struggle with having resources to raise their children. We don’t want to admit that in our nation, no one can afford an apartment for a family making minimum wage.

We don’t want to be made uncomfortable, so we separate ourselves from truth. We either ignore it, or we deny it can be true because it doesn’t make sense to us. So, if we consider ourselves to be wise, and something doesn’t make sense or line up with what we have experienced, it’s easier to deny it.

I’ve found this to be true in my own life. I didn’t want to face the suffering of other people. I had enough problems of my own. And I didn’t want to admit that my silence or my unwillingness to listen could actually hurt others. Again, I was a good person, so I couldn’t be harming anyone.

But as I looked at agencies helping others while I was trying to find help, I found that I knew very little about other people’s lives—their families, their joys, their struggles. I had not taken the time to listen to others—to really learn about their cultures, their neighborhoods, their hopes, their faith, their fears. My silence and my lack of understanding was actually allowing suffering of others to continue because I wasn’t even acknowledging that it was real.

I started picking up magazines that covered in-depth stories about international events. I read about different faith communities. I turned on podcasts hosted by a diverse group of people. But reading or listening to a podcast would never be enough. It’s about being in community with other people—seeing them face to face—sitting at the table with them. John Pavlovitz, an American Christian pastor and author, has a book titled A Bigger Table. He refers to the idea that we need to expand our table so we are sitting and communing with new people—diverse people. It’s only then that we are truly learning and accepting others.

That’s what Thistle Farms does—they don’t just hand out money to women who have survived trafficking, prostitution, and addiction. They invite them to table to hear their stories and help them find love and hope and new opportunities for a more fulfilling life.

That’s what the Dorothy Day House does—go back and find that episode. They invite families in to share their table. They don’t just believe the old myths that you must not be trying or you must deserve your lot in life if you are homeless. They see that truth that people lose homes for a variety of reasons, and that we can all be a part of the solution.

That’s what the Big Heart Fund does…invite families to the table who have children suffering from illnesses that affect their hearts.

That’s what Mama Bears do—they see the truth that people in the LGBTQ+ community deserve love and deserve equality and have a lot of talents and gifts and love to share with all of us. They dig deeper in their faith beliefs and go back to original texts and ask hard questions as they learn. They research the scientific findings available and realize the beauty of how people are created rather than seeing their loves as a horrible choice.

It’s what the Refugee Empowerment Program does. It invites people in—listens to their stories—researches to understand what they are fleeing—sees the beauty of who they are—helps them find safety and hope—embraces their children—works to educate the rest of us so we stop fearing what we don’t even try to understand.

It’s about admitting we have a lot to learn. It’s about building a bigger table. It’s about really seeking truth. Who have you turned your back on and walked away because you just didn’t want to be around someone “like that?” Who have you labeled without sitting with? Who have you gossiped about instead of talked to? Who has asked you for an invitation to the table and you have said no because it felt too inconvenient or because you couldn’t understand their perspective?

“I just don’t understand” is never an excuse for taking away a chair at the table. Be a person who seeks truth—listen and meet them face to face. Go to a Jewish synagogue. Dine with a Muslim. Take a victim of violence out for a meal and ask if they are willing to share part of their story with you. Tutor a refugee. Read to a child over the summer through programs like Project Transformation. Create safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community. Ask to see their wedding pictures and smile with them. Volunteer at Pride events. Sit with them if they visit your church. Go to an original source of a news story and get the whole picture. Shut down lies being passed around. Grow a little each time. Seek truth and destroy myths along the way.

OK, let’s be real. Some of you are asking why? Why get out of my comfort zone? Why be willing to work hard to get to know someone else and help someone else reach their goals? Isn’t that what nonprofits are for? I give them my money.

First, great job if you are helping to support a nonprofit! They certainly need all of us working with them. However, we are also called to be part of the solution to bringing love and hope to this world. We are the people educating ourselves so we can employ people who are healing, encourage those who are hurting, and love those who are working to find hope and fulfill their dreams.

There’s so much joy in building the bigger table and joining in the sharing of bread with others. There’s love for us all when we reach out to others. There’s a satisfaction of seeing someone reach their goals. And there’s the words at the end of the journey: well done.

Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed this episode of my Look to See Me podcast and will return for the next episode.

Podcast Episode: Drip Irrigation

If you are following my podcast on iTunes or SoundCloud (Look to See Me by Chris Pepple), you can find some of the transcripts of my episodes here.

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Drip Irrigation

Hi, Listeners! I hope you are all having a wonderful week this week. Welcome back to Look to See Me, a podcast that invites you to look closer at the lives of people around you and to take time to hear their stories. I’m Chris Pepple and today I’m going to talk about an organization that I have been following for the last ten years…Healing Hands International.

Healing Hands International, a nonprofit organization based in Nashville, Tenn., began in 1991 when Randy Steger, a Lipscomb University marketing professor, hoped to teach his class how to use their talents to help those in need. Twenty university students hoped to make a difference. Hundreds of donors hoped to help the cause. When hope took over, a small class project grew to become Healing hands International (HHI), an international nonprofit humanitarian relief organization that touches thousands of people’s lives every year. Since its beginning, Healing Hands International has delivered more than $100 million in aid to more than 75 countries around the world (and I’m pretty sure that the number is much higher than this…I think this is an older statistic.)

Here’s more recent information from just one aspect of the work Healing Hands International does: Since it began, the agriculture program for HHI has conducted a total of 535 workshops in 35 countries, training 27,466 people firsthand. Many of their trainees are quick to share what they’ve learned with others, creating a multiplying effect. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization “Agriculture production needs to increase 70% by 2050 to feed the world.” HHI’s simple, practical, affordable, sustainable agriculture training is helping to solve this problem. It is life-saving and life-changing!

HHI does many things well. They are listed as a four-star charity on Charity Navigator. You can go their website and get a full overview on all of their many programs and see exactly how any donations are used. In this podcast, I’m just going to talk about one aspect of their program: the agricultural component. Ever since I first wrote an article about HHI, I’ve been fascinated by the way they work to discover the needs of a community and find practical, sustainable solutions to help meet those needs. The agriculture program empowers communities to fight hunger by providing instruction on basic gardening techniques that can be used even in drought prone areas.

I had the opportunity to interview David Goolsby multiple times when he worked with HHI as the director of international agricultural development and relief. Part of his responsibilities included designing workshops and vocational education to teach community leaders around the world how to help fight the devastating hunger overwhelming many areas. He taught communities to work together to build an efficient and lasting agricultural economy to provide for their own needs by practicing simple sustainable technologies.

“We teach participants to start a garden with minimum resources. For successful gardening we focus on simplicity, affordability, sustainability and practicality. We want to make sure a widow with five small children can tend her garden. People with more resources can adapt what we teach to their circumstances,” said David Goolsby in a 2009 interview.

One method for successful agricultural development Goolsby passed on in his training programs involves a drip irrigation system using simple materials easy to provide to communities around the world. After the first ten farmers went through the training in 1999 and the first fruits of this method became evident by early 2000, a nationwide interest in drip irrigation grew all across Ethiopia. As a result of drip irrigation and survival garden training, families were able to provide more than enough food to sustain them and to share amongst their communities. Thousands of people started to use this method of gardening in Ethiopia and in several other neighboring and regional African countries as well.

The HHI website (hhi.org) has a video to show how to create a drip irrigation system. It teaches families and farmers how to grow vegetables during their dry season. The video shows gardeners how to place drip lines on raised gardening beds to ensure that each plant receives sufficient water. The gardeners are encouraged to use materials they already have available in their communities along with items supplied by HHI. Buckets or barrels placed on a raised stand are connected to the drip lines on the raised beds. A hole is drilled into the bottom of the bucket and connectors are used to secure the drip lines. Various groups help to provide the connectors to gardeners in each area. A cloth over the top of the bucket filters material that may clog the lines from the water. One raised bed can produce enough food to feed a family of five to seven people during the dry season. Extra beds can produce food available to sell at the market or to help sustain other community members.

HHI has worked with people in Haiti since 2013 through sustainable agricultural workshops. During the first workshop, 75 farmers learned how to turn a rocky field into raised planting beds with a compost trench and drip irrigation.

The HHI team has shared many stories of success that can be found on the website.

  • In May of 2011, HHI staff and volunteers traveled to Kayenta, AZ to teach the lifesaving skills of survival gardening and food preservation to families of the Navajo Nation. The “hands-on” workshop taught the use of a drip irrigation kit, composting and seed transplanting.
  • In 2002, Malawi was suffering from years of famine and a growing AIDS epidemic. Orphaned children were dying of disease and starvation and the livestock and crops were decimated. HHI’s Agricultural Director, David Goolsby, traveled to the country to train local farmers in survival gardening techniques. As he taught them he encouraged them to go out and train other farmers in these same techniques. From that initial trip grew a first-of-its-kind operation in Africa. David eventually spent seven months helping more than 200 local workers build the Madalitso (Blessings) Food Plant. The plant turns corn and soybean crops grown by the local farmers into VitaMeal, a vitamin fortified flour that is purchased by Feed the Children and Nourish the Children.
  • In 2008, Dr. Willa Finley, knowledgeable in agriculture and nutrition, Brenda McVey, a missionary in Ghana for more than 20 years, Eleni Melirrytos, a seasoned cook and gifted public speaker, Janice Goolsby, with more than 20 years of experience in food preservation, and Alisa Merritt Van Dyke, the youngest of the group, boarded a plane to Maiduguri, Nigeria. Their mission was new and simple, teach women the skills of food preservation techniques and empower them to bless their families and communities. This project was inspired by a Muslim woman, one of the few women to attend a drip irrigation workshop held by HHI the previous year. She made the comment that it would be useful to the women of her country to learn ways to better preserve and prepare food for their families. From this initial workshop to date, hundreds of women have been trained in food preservation skills. Not only has HHI been able to touch these women’s lives, but many of them are going back to their community and training others, spreading the knowledge they have learned!

HHI workshops teach sustainable food production and preservation skills to those struggling to feed their families. Over the course of two days, trainees are taught survival gardening techniques using drip irrigation, raised garden beds, composting and mulching, seed transplanting and basic garden management. After completing the workshop attendees are given a drip irrigation kit to take with them back to their communities to start their own gardens. HHI also holds workshops that teach methods for drying and preserving food, often in conjunction with the food production workshop.

I think I’m fascinated by this project for many reasons. First, it’s so practical. People need food. What better way to support a community than starting with something so basic as making sure they are fed. Second, because it is sustainable and manageable after the HHI teams leave the area. This work doesn’t leave a community dependent upon outside resources. True, this agricultural work doesn’t solve all of their problems. They may still need fresh water to drink or medical assistance (by the way, HHI has other teams to step in and address these issues), but food is a great way to start.

Third, this work is done with the local people in the community. The HHI teams work with existing leaders or farmers or families to teach them the details about what needs to be done and empowers them to then become teachers themselves.

So what’s our challenge for this week? Let’s find some really practical ways that we can use our knowledge and our resources to help someone. Identify ways that you can mentor someone who can then go forward to be a mentor for someone else. We can change communities one person at a time.

Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed this episode of my Look to See Me podcast and will return for the next episode.

Podcast Episode: The Jasmine Center

If you are following my podcast on iTunes or SoundCloud (Look to See Me by Chris Pepple), you can find some of the transcripts of my episodes here.

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Hi, Listeners! I hope you are all having a wonderful week this week. Welcome back to Look to See Me, a podcast that invites you to look closer at the lives of people around you and to take time to hear their stories. I’m Chris Pepple and today I’m going to talk about something a little different. In past episodes, I have talked about community groups and nonprofit groups that have been in existence for several years. I could give you a little history on the organization and a glimpse of their programs.

A few weeks ago, though, I ran into a woman and overheard her conversation about her plans for a new nonprofit organization. Now, remember that I’m a writer…being a writer means I’m always listening when I’m out in public. It’s how I learn new things about my community, about people around me, about our world.  I stop listening if I realize that people are talking about something extremely personal, but if I’m around people just chatting about life or work or interests, I love to look busy and keep listening.

In this instance, I decided to confess to the woman that I was eavesdropping. I introduced myself and gave her my contact information. I told her I would love to hear more about the project she was working on. I’m glad she was willing to check out my website and see that I wasn’t crazy. And she was willing to answer questions for me.

I wanted to know more about how an organization that aims to serve our community gets a start—how do you tackle large societal issues such as homelessness, poverty, and abuse when you are starting with just a vision? Here’s what I learned from a woman named Timishia Ortiz who is the founder and CEO of The Jasmine Center in Memphis, Tennessee. And please forgive me if my “Southernness” is mispronouncing her beautiful name.

Ortiz was graciously open to sharing her life story, so we can glimpse her background and see the perspective she is coming from when she had the vision to start The Jasmine Center. She was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, to a father who was a radiologist and a mother who was a stay-at-home parent. When she lost her dad at age seven to heart disease, her mother relocated the family to Memphis.

Ortiz’s life changed when she had to face the pain of domestic abuse in her own marriage. She faced a very rocky divorce while living in Nashville. Now many of you may not understand how challenging it can be for mothers to maneuver though Tennessee’s court system. The process takes an enormous emotional and financial toll on the people going through the courts. Nothing is easy even when you are the victim. In Tennessee, court costs and lawyer fees add up quickly. I can tell you that from personal experience. As so often happens, Ortiz and her children were homeless for a time. When she first left in order to be safe, she and her children stayed in a hotel for a few days. But she was a stay-at-home mother without income to sustain a long stay in a hotel.

When Ortiz tried to reach out to an agency for temporary government assistance, the woman assisting her with the paperwork asked for an address. When Ortiz gave a hotel address, the woman then declared that Ortiz and her children were homeless. That was a reality she had trouble naming or accepting. She used what little funds she had left to get to Memphis where her mother and brother lived. Unfortunately, neither had the resources to help her financially. Actually, her mother was being evicted from the house she was staying in because she was unable to keep up the rental payments. So, Ortiz felt truly homeless.

Here’s a quote from Ortiz…some information that she shared with me in her own words: “In the midst of these troubles, I was rushed to the hospital to give birth to my second child. God set up a miraculous breakthrough for us. We discovered that my deceased dad’s sister relocated (to Memphis) from Atlanta, Georgia. When she heard our dire circumstances, she immediately helped us in getting a place. While going through those turbulent times, I ran into other moms who had been homeless over an extended period of time. After their stay in shelters of 30-90 days, these families still had no place to go, sometimes had no skills to be productive, no resources to help their children…these moms were left with more hopelessness, no support, and a chance to be next on the waiting list for another homeless program. This gave me the drive and determination to PUSH until something new was birthed.”

Ortiz used her challenges in life to find new strength and a strong faith. She used that strength and faith not just to help herself and her kids, but to also reach out and help others. Here’s what she has to say about The Jasmine Center:

“The Jasmine Center is a social service industry with a strategic goal of reducing homelessness, crime, poor education, and unemployment in the city of Memphis. Estimations of poverty take into account the average household income, home value, the percent below the federally recognized poverty line and the overall unemployment rate. For all it’s apparent conveniences and perks, city living has never been easy or inexpensive. TJC wants to break the cycle of poverty so prevalent in single households that are caught up in the cycle of unemployment, domestic violence, crime, and incarceration by endeavoring to equip and empower individuals to live life with God, and to help them make the changes necessary to live an abundant and purposeful life. It is our desire to connect the families including any absent fathers with valuable resources, one-on-one mentoring through local church leadership, and counseling services. Our program is designed to develop relationships with the families in order to facilitate a transition from homelessness to a safe stable place to live.”

Now in her wisdom, Ortiz knew she couldn’t do this alone. She found a mentor named Mark Yates, president and CEO of Life Enhancement Services.  She also pulled together an advisory board. Here’s what she said about that process: “I began to think of leaders that enjoyed helping others. The more I talked about my story and my vision for the Center the more like-minded people I found. They would always say to me, ‘Wow, I wish I could help.’ There was my open door for recruitment. I started out with two medical physicians on my Board of Directors then it expanded from there.”

She also applied to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in May 2018. She admits that she wishes she had known beforehand how extensive this process was. Ideally, she now realizes she should have applied for that designation earlier in the process. But we all have things to learn when we are being courageous enough to follow a vision. And when we are strong enough to admit what we didn’t know, we can help educate others following in our footsteps.

So what’s next for The Jasmine Center? The team has built a website (thejasminecenter.com) and is looking for an actual location to offer housing for those in need.

“I am currently in the process of obtaining a place,” said Ortiz, “with the gracious help of realtor Timothy Smith with Jasco Realty and Mary Sharp of 32 years with Remax. They’ve been working expeditiously with finding affordable apartment style units for our expected families in need. I project to have a secure place before the end of 2018.”

The Jasmine Center isn’t sitting by idly while waiting for the housing. The team members are currently working to make connections within the community so they can work together with existing agencies to tackle the problems of abuse, poverty, and homelessness. They are currently involved in a collaborative effort with The Family Safety Center. They decided to make survivor kits for their victims of domestic violence.

What has been her biggest challenge in founding The Jasmine Center?

“My biggest challenge,” she admits, “was not allowing fear to stop me and coming up with the money to get it started. The next biggest challenge was preparing a feasible budget.”

In this podcast, I introduce you to a lot of nonprofit organizations working to make changes in their communities. Some of you ask how a person decides if they should share resources in support of these groups? Well, I suggest just being wise. Look at their websites and talk to their board members. Do your research as you would with any investment—and donating time or money to a nonprofit group is an investment in your community—in our world.

I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next for The Jasmine Center. I hope you follow their story. I admire the determination of Timishia Ortiz and respect her desire to make a difference in the lives of others. I appreciate her willingness and courage to honestly share her story.

Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed this episode of my Look to See Me podcast and will return for the next episode.