"Do not ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do that. For what the world needs is more people who have come alive."
-Howard Thurman

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

How A Mud Figurine Taught Me About Hope

 Manyang and me at one of his fundraisers for Humanity Helping Sudan that I had the honor of hosting.  Afterwards, I helped sell these figurines that Manyang still makes to raise money for his cause, and I learned the story behind them.  Who knew a mud figurine could be so inspirational?

During my year of service, I had the honor of working with the Humanity Helping Sudan project, which seeks to provide aid and assistance to the Sudanese Diaspora in the Gambella region of Ethiopia along the Eastern border of Southern Sudan. I got to know the project's founder, Manyang Reath, a young man who just exudes warmth and energy, with a contagious smile and a vivacious spirit that is immediately ascertainable to all those around him. On first impressions, you would probably never guess that a man who laughs so easily and radiates such a distinct sense of amiability has had a past filled with struggles that most of us can hardly imagine.
When Manyang was 4 years old, he became a victim of the Sudanese civil war. Before dawn, Northern soldiers descended on his home in Pochalla, chasing down and shooting the villagers and abducting women and children. Manyang's uncle grabbed the little boy, threw him up on his shoulders and ran.  After a long while they reached a shallow river and made it across but Manyang's Uncle was hit by gunfire and he died still clutching Manyang in his arms.

Manyang was able to escape and travel with other “lost boys” to a refugee camp. Orphaned and alone, with no food or water, no means of survival, and no one to care for him but his fellow lost boys, hope was dim. It would seem that he had nothing. But even then, he decided not to give up. He used the mud on the grounds of the camp to fashion small animal figurines, and sold them in exchange for food and water....and he survived. 

Eventually he was rescued and brought to the Virginia home for Girls and Boys in Richmond, where he lived until matriculating in to the University of Richmond where he is currently pursuing his bachelor's degree. Yes, his future now looks bright- but even the most hopeless situation, Manyang found “something” in “nothing,” and his story teaches us a valuable lesson- one that transcends to all of us in our times of struggle. There is always something. 

Congratulations to Manyang on being a finalist for the VH1 "Do Something" award! (watch the video from VH1 here: http://www.vh1.com/video/misc/827784/do-something-award-finalist-manyang-reath-kher.jhtml#id=1691749).  This is what I call BEAUTIFUL. 

The three figurines that came home with me :)

Friday, August 3, 2012

"I Do"

We are all different in so many ways-our complexity and nuances, the many facets that make us unique- that is an inherent beauty in our race...the human race that is. After all, when we strip ourselves down, remove all the labels that we put on ourselves and each other, that is what we are all left with. We are all simply human, no more, no less, and in that way, no different. And we all deserve respect and understanding. Furthermore, one of the beautiful things about America is that we are a culture that embraces diversity and differences of opinion- that encourages open expression, whether it be religiously, politically, personally etc.-that was founded on this very ideal- which is why our country places such a strong value on equal rights, and which is why our laws guarantee equal protection under the constitution. Because we are a diverse nation, we cannot make laws based on one cross section of the population or one belief system, because no one's viewpoint is more valid than another- that is not how our country was built.  It was built on the idea of individual freedom- on the idea that we are all guaranteed equal rights period, regardless of our individual beliefs.  Simply, everyone has basic rights, equal rights, and beyond that we are each free to express ourselves and our lives in whatever fashion we may choose.  To deny one cross section of the population a specific right for a specific reason is not what we stand for as Americans, and when it comes to our laws, our individual beliefs are not what is in question- for there are too many differing opinions for opinions to drive legislation.

Personally, I believe that no person should be discriminated against or denied any right based off of gender, race, sexual orientation, or anything else. However, my personal opinion is not what is ultimately in question. What is in question is what is right legally, not right based off my values or beliefs (or anyone else's), and in my opinion, denying same-sex couples the right to marry is contrary to the basic principles of American democracy.  The Constitution exists to protect human rights- not women's rights or men's rights or Christian's rights or Jew's rights- human rights.  The Constitution as a document seeks to liberate its citizens- with each amendment essentially being created to protect a population or guarantee a freedom (EG: amendments that protect the press, religious groups, racial minorities etc). The constitution protects our rights as Americans, it doesn't restrict them based on an individual difference. Therefore, even if the framers did not specifically have same sex marriage in mind when drafting the document in the 18th century, and even if some of their language seems outdated and subject matter irrelevant- their concepts behind the language and values underlying every subject are as relevant today as they ever were, and still extend to modern issues- values of freedom, of equal protection, of liberty, of empowerment. In fact, they very clearly state their purpose for drafting the Constitution in the preamble, which concludes with this mission: “(to) secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” the key words in this context being “liberty” and “posterity,” for they very distinctly indicate that the framers wished for this document to continue to uphold liberty for future generations to come, despite what new issues may arise in progressive society.

Our country was founded on this principle: that the law protects all Americans regardless of differences-we are a nation that was crated as a place where these differences can be expressed and celebrated- and the constitution guarantees equal protection under the law. A law making marriage illegal for one group of people is a direct violation of this, and that is ultimately why I believe homosexual marriage should be legalized. However, that is not why I support homosexual marriage (and I believe this distinction is important in this debate).

I support homosexual marriage because fundamentally I support people embracing who they are and I support healthy loving relationships in all forms. I believe that at the end of the day, regardless of everything that may make us different, we are human first. I believe that every person has value and merit and deserves to live their life out loud in a way that makes them happy, and that if their happiness does not impede on anyone else's, why shouldn't they be able to? I believe that regardless of your view of marriage, someone else's view doesn't invalidate your own, and someone else's marriage does not invalidate yours. Furthermore, in my view of God (which is again irrelevant to the legal point), God created each person to be beautifully different and who are we to question that? Instead, if we seek to honor God, let us celebrate his creation, every bit of it, and accept each other for everything we are, not only the parts that make us comfortable or that we understand.

Moreover, homosexual marriage does not harm heterosexual marriage. Every marriage is an individual relationship unto itself. With divorce rates at an all time high and infidelity in marriage a huge issue, if we do seek to "save marriage," perhaps we should focus our attention there, rather than denying rights to the portion of a population of people who already model healthy unions. And denying homosexuals the right to marry doesn't stop them from getting "married" either: it doesn't prevent them from entering into committed loving relationships, from living together and sharing their lives, from anniversaries and family vacations. It doesn't even stop them from holding a wedding, exchanging rings, celebrating their union with family and friends. It only denies them the legal recognition- the hospital visitation rights, the right to file taxes jointly and to share healthcare benefits etc. And why shouldn't they have those rights like any other monogamous and committed couple- because they happen to be of the same gender? How is that different than denying them that right because they are of different races (which our country has indisputably disallowed)?  There are so many things about us that make us different, what makes denying rights based on one but not another acceptable?  Who decides which differences should be protected and which shouldn't?  Think about it.

There is a lot of despair in this world- there is a lot of heartbreak and suffering- a lot that can't be helped, that we as humans don't have control over.  Why should we create another source of suffering that could be a source of joy?  Why shouldn't we celebrate love and commitment in all forms, human freedom, dignity, and happiness.  Why shouldn't we encourage people to embrace what makes them unique regardless of what it is, and do the same for others? Why shouldn't we liberate ourselves and each other from labels and see each other for who we are first? Why shouldn't we concentrate on that which unites us rather than divides us?

We all have different beliefs but our laws are not governed by our individual beliefs.  They are governed by our country's fundamental values, which also protect those individual beliefs: Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit of Happiness (and yes I know that specific line finds root in the Declaration of Independence, although I believe the same values are echoed in the Constitution).  Living life out loud, being free to chose who you marry, and entering into a loving and committed relationship with that person and having that union recognized under the law seems to fit those values to me.

So do I believe in marriage equality?  Yes, "I Do."