Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Impact Report: Southwestern Alabama

My friends Shamalia and Siyumi both work at Global Scripture Impact. They are research analysts, trying to measure the impact of programs taking place all around the world, many of which international bible societies have submitted to the American Bible Society for possible funding.

This week I felt their impact a little closer to to where I am - in southwestern Alabama. Siyumi connected me with her cousins Pathum Mendis & Kanchana Weerakoon in Auburn where I spent Monday and Tuesday night. Then Shamalia took the baton and put me in touch with Helen Snipe in Tuskegee and Frederick & Linda Tippett in Eastern Montgomery on Wednesday and Thursday respectively.

When a project that GSI researches is completed, the researcher writes an Impact Report to submit to the organization who funded it. Given that Siyumi and Shamalia are the reasons I had roofs over my head this week, I submit this Impact Report to them.


Pemsith, Pathum, Kanchana & me in Auburn on Tuesday night

War Eagle!

This year Auburn is suffering from a bit of an inferiority complex. All the college football attention is on their rival Alabama. 'Bama is undefeated and preparing to play for the national championship on January 7th. Auburn, meanwhile, is scheduled to play in the Outback Bowl. I've eaten at Outback twice on this trip and I'm not saying anything bad about their food, but if you are playing at a bowl game named for them, chances are you are not one of the top 10 teams in the nation.

What amounts to salt in Auburn's 2009 wounds is that they would of, could of, should of beat Alabama two weeks ago. But didn't. So when I walked into Auburn on Monday, eight days after that fourth quarter collapse, the energy was definitely subdued. Add that to the fact that it was finals week and College Street had kind of an old west feel to it. I kept a keen eye out for any tumbleweeds.

Just because Auburn had a down year doesn't mean they don't have a long and proud football tradition. I have become fascinated by school fight songs and football traditions on this trip. From putting my arms around fellow fans and swaying to the fight song in Charlottesville, to belting out Rocky Top while at UT, I love to learn about how a fan base celebrates the triumphs of their warrior kings. I turned to my host Pathum, who is a doctoral student in physics at Auburn, to shed some light on the traditions here.

Before the beginning of each game an eagle is released at the top reaches of the stadium. As soon as the eagle is released the entire stadium starts a long, drawn out chant of "war". The eagle flies around the stadium a time or two and then swoops down to a designated spot on the 50 yard line and when it does the crowd screams "Eagle, Hey!" Self congratulatory fervor ensues. Pathum said that during one game early this year the eagle called an audible and flew out of the stadium for a few moments, leaving everyone in limbo with their "warrrrr" chant. To their credit they kept it going, the eagle returned and the fans got the sweet release of the "Eagle" yell. I gotta tell you, it sounds like fun.

Pathum should know. Not only is he a big sports fan, he's also a doctoral student. Given that doctorates take only slightly less time to complete than FDR's presidency, he's been around Auburn for a while. Despite this being their current adopted home, he and his wife Kanchana are most decidedly not Alabama born and bred. They both grew up in Sri Lanka - Pathum near the capital of Colombo and Kanchana in the hill country near Kandy. Whatever traditions they have brought from Sri Lanka, hospitality seems to be at the top of that list. Even though they only need two rooms (Pathum's brother Pemsith is their roommate), they have a three bedroom apartment. It doesn't take a doctoral student to do the math ... I got my own room. War Eagle to that!

On the night I arrived they were also playing host to Kanchana's brother Pujitha and had invited two other undergrads over for dinner. One was a fellow Sri Lankan and the other was from Nigeria. I loved having so many people around. As I have written many times before, this trip is all about people, so the more the merrier. Maybe I wouldn't be saying that if I had to cook. Kanchana fulfilled that duty and it was ger-reat. In case that word doesn't appear in your dictionary, that is one level above great. And there was dessert. I would have yelled out War Eagle again but I was too stuffed to emit a sound. When I am that full and have travelled that far, sleep is the only siren song I want to listen to.

I had planned a rest day in Auburn because I desperately needed to do some planning for upcoming nights. I had an opening on Thursday and then no places to stay all next week south of Montgomery. Gulp. So on Tuesday morning I went back down to College Street and set myself up at a coffee shop to do some work. The previous morning I had sent an email to the tiny Greenville Advocate newspaper south of Montgomery asking if they might write a story about me that could help me find some hosts in the area. It was my first time contacting the press. I had decided before my trip that I wouldn't seek out publicity unless it was to help find hosts. Now I needed that help.

The Greenville Advocate did end up writing a small article and that resulted in a family in Fort Deposit contacting me and offering a place to stay. Little could I have guessed how that small spark would grow in the next three days. As for that day, it was pouring and I was just thrilled to be under a warm roof. I spent the morning at the coffee shop and the afternoon using wifi at St. Dunstan's Episcopal church across the street from campus. It was there that I got a call from the Montgomery Advertiser asking for an interview. Deciding I could use all the press I could get with so many empty nights on my schedule, we chatted for a while before I went back to Pathum & Kanchana's apartment.

On Tuesday night the crowd had thinned and it was just the three of us for dinner. Kanchana had returned victorious from her depatment's Christmas party. She had won first prize with her chicken fried rice and was now $50 richer. Whenever you win first prize in a food contest, you can't expect to have any left. There wasn't. Instead she cooked a pasta dish that was undoubtedly just as good and we watched UEFA Champions League soccer matches on cable TV.

I learned a lot of things that night. First, I learned that the Sri Lankan school system is almost identical to Zimbabwe's, right down the power hungry prefects preying on Form One students. Second, I learned that the wedding photography industry in Sri Lanka might be a good one for me to seek my fortune. After flipping through their two beautiful wedding albums and asking them a ton of questions I think I might also be qualified to write a book called "Sri Lankan Wedding Traditions for Americans". Thirdly, I learned that if you pronounce my name in Sinhala it means "journey". How appropriate. Unwittingly, we also discovered that Kinchana's written Sinhala is a little sharper than Pathum's. If anyone notices the mistake in the picture below - who was not born in Sri Lanka - I'll walk back from New Orleans.

Garth's journey

My two nights at their apartment flew by. I felt so at home there I almost went down to the university and asked for a job. I'm not sure what skills I have that they are looking for, but I'll tell you this much, if something mysterious happens to the eagle handler in the next few months, I should probably be considered the lead suspect.


Me & Helen Snipe in Tuskegee, AL on Wednesday night

Joel Osteen in my living room

The small town of Tuskegee is exactly 19 miles from Auburn. From a urban point of view it is quite literally out in the middle of nowhere. From a rural point of view, I guess it is in the middle of it all. Beliefs do rely on one's perspective. What isn't subjective is this indelible fact: Helen Snipe was ready and waiting for my arrival.

Helen works for the city of Tuskegee but had taken the afternoon off to cook and prepare for me coming at 4pm. It was a warm day in the low 70s, so I "slowed my roll" as the kids say and took my time strolling through the Tuskegee National Forest. For an hour or so I really felt like I had set aside any obsessive thought patterns and was just existing in the moment. That is always a beautiful experience.

Once I was back on a busier street - Route 80 to be exact - I got a phone call from a reporter at Montgomery's NBC affiliate. He wanted to come out and do a story on my walk for that night's 10 o'clock news. I was a bit taken aback, never having considered that a TV station might be interested. But I have this motto I have been living by on the road: When an opportunity arises, don't over think it, just say yes.

The only problem is that being on the phone with him meant that I had walked right past Helen's street. Luckily, people look out for people in Tuskegee. Helen's son had noticed me pass on by and told his mom, who jumped in her van and tore after me. She was there in a flash and scooped me up to take me the few hundred yards back home in the opposite direction.

To say Helen had cooked a feast for me wouldn't be doing it justice. This was a textbook southern meal that could have fed King Arthur, his roundtable and any jesters hanging about for scraps. Baked chicken. Fried chicken. Rice. Collards. Turnip greens. Cornbread. Creamed corn. Deviled eggs. Salad. Sweet tea. Bundt cake. I looked around expecting half the block to be preparing to eat, but she had made it all for me. It was so thoughtful.

The best way for me to describe Helen is simply to say she has a heart for Jesus and leave it at that. What more do you have to say? The NBC reporter came, we shot some pieces in downtown Tuskegee and then we came back to her house so that he could interview her and get some other footage. When he asked why she had been willing to take a stranger in, she gave a fitting reply.

"I don't know who he is," she replied. "He could be Jesus. You just gotta love everybody." Can you imagine how different this country would be if every Christian treated the person in front of them at any given moment as if they were Jesus?

Helen was using hyperbole to good effect. She knew I wasn't Jesus, she was just treating me as such. She knew I was the friend of her nephew Kenyatta's (she calls him Kenny) wife Shamalia. Furthermore, she knew exactly who she thought I resembled. Friends would call and she would tell them humorously, "I have Joel Osteen in my living room."

I have never heard that before. I've heard Norm MacDonald (not so flattering). I've heard James Franco (I think a little over flattering). But I've never heard the gold-tongued preacher from Texas. But hey, I'll take it. I told her I just hoped she wasn't expecting any impromptu sermons in her living room. That is my father's department.

With the food eaten, the TV piece taped, some of Helen's friends and family met and visited with and Helen assured that every single need I might have had been satisfied, I repaired to bed. Part of me wanted to stay up to see if the piece made the newscast, but the rest of my body pleaded exhaustion and won the argument. I fell asleep by 8:45 and slept peacefully all the way until .... 10:19.

With my substantial powers of deduction I have figured out that 10:10 is when the 2-minute piece on the NBC must have finished airing. At that very moment my cell phone started blowing up. I was groggy so I let them go to voicemail but I said to myself, "I guess they ran it ... and included my phone number." As they rolled in one after another, I resolved to return them all - in the morning.


Frederick, Linda, me, Frederick Jr., & Joshua in Eastern Montgomery on Thursday night

A Day in the Life of a C-List Montgomery Celebrity

Thursday dawned like any other day on my trip. One minor difference. For the first time thousands of other people knew who I was. Helen served me a breakfast and then took me to Tuskegee University so I could use their library and look around a bit. Then it was time to hit the road again.

Let me back up and say a quick word about learning not to worry. I had forgotten to mention that as late as Wednesday afternoon I still didn't know where I would be staying Thursday night. Shamalia had asked around and called and emailed and done her best but nothing was confirmed. In the beginning of my journey I would have been very worried. By now I knew from experience that something would likely turn up. It did.

Shortly after getting to Helen's I got a call from Professor Fred Tippett. Fred chairs the Department of Pathobiology at Tuskegee's Veterinary school and had known Shamalia's husband Kenyatta in his Tuskegee days. He offered me a place to stay the next night and we arranged for how we would meet. I thought to myself, "See. There was no need to worry." There never really is.

I left Tuskegee for the 18 mile walk to where I was meeting Fred, headed in the direction of Route 80. As soon as I got to 80 I saw G & S Restaurant. The owner is a friend of Helen's who had stopped by the night before and I mentioned that I might stop in for lunch. Even though it was a little early, I did just that. A couple guys were in there, one of whom recognized me from the telecast the night before. "I've got him'" he told Helen's friend, indicating he would pay for my meal. I was greatly obliged and I sat and had lunch with him before pushing back off.

On the road the cavalcade of cars pulling over to talk to me commenced. Between Tuskegee and Shorter about 10 cars stopped to ask if I was the guy from the newscast walking to New Orleans. One woman was intent on writing me a check to help me on my journey. I eventually talked her out of it, but the thought was very much appreciated. All the hellos, the offer of car rides and the dozen or so more calls, emails and texts that came in as a result of being on the news meant a lot to me. It just goes to prove my point. There is a deep vein of kindness everywhere. It is just about tapping into it. The NBC piece was a big, long needle and that Thursday I pulled deep from that vein in a way I hadn't had a chance to before. I certainly wouldn't have wanted every day to be like this, but given my need to network and find more places to stay, it was the perfect gift at the perfect time.

Later that night I would get another round of calls and texts. Apparently a Biloxi, MS station re-aired the piece and people from the Gulf Coast were starting to call and offer their help. All in all, in the space of 24 hours I probably found 6 different hosts and connections to possibly many more because of the coverage. Even if it hadn't, it would have been worth doing. The young reporter was a really nice guy and put together what I thought was a very concise and accurate depiction of my mission and vision.



My four day push from the Alabama border to East Montgomery ended in the warmth of the Tippett's house and in the pleasure of some great fellowship around their dining room. Fred picked me up in Shorter just after dusk and drove me to his house where I met his wife Linda and their two sons Frederick Jr. and Joshua. I am particularly indebted to Fred and his wife for their welcome because, by their own admission, this request could not have come at a more inconvenient time. Their sons go to school 40 minutes away and need to be driven, Linda's car has recently been totaled and Fred is in the middle of finals week at Tuskegee. In short, it was a perfect storm of reasons not to host a perfect stranger.

Yet Fred and Linda shared with me that as the day of my need drew closer, they both felt God impress upon their heart that they needed to do this, despite the inconvenience. So Fred called me and voila, I had a place to stay. Before we ate dinner the Tippetts and their kids went around the table and each recited a Scripture verse by memory. When it came to me I had to paraphrase, but now having the help of some research, here is the verse I wanted to share:

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." - Matthew 6:34

That was the lesson I learned from their hospitality. Undoubtedly, they had their own experience and their own learning. Together we were both blessed and we spent an evening together sharing the simple human fellowship which makes life so rewarding. They set me up in a spacious guest room with its own bathroom and I slept like a baby, safe from the plummeting temperatures outside. It was clearly meant to be that I stay with this wonderful family and take shelter in their welcome. If I would have worried and panicked and paid for a hotel room before hearing from Fred and Linda, I wouldn't have received this blessing. As it happened, I didn't worry, they didn't succumb to the inconveniences of hosting at a very inopportune time and what happened? We shared the love of God and the peace that passes all understanding.

Thus ended a rather surreal but gratifying four day experience. If you read this blog regularly you aren't surprised that it was marked by amazing human kindness and set after set of open arms. If it wasn't so beautiful to experience I would say that my life has gotten a bit predictable. I wish you all to be so predictably blessed.

17 comments:

  1. This is awesome! :)

    William Vandegrift

    ReplyDelete
  2. First of,congratulation on your news coverage. I think you deserve it!
    Second, I'm not sure what really to say, except that I am stunned by your level of determination, passion and compassion. More importantly, thanks to those who have suppored continiously . Your belief in human's kindness is mesmerizing, especially in today's society.
    Kady

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm so glad that everything worked out in Tuskegee and Alabama. Our family is still smiling about the fact that aunt Helen was on the news with you. She thanks us all the time for the opportunity we gave her to host you. She was truly blessed. God never ceases to amaze us and that was truly seen in the Tippet's hospitality. I should have meditated on that verse in Matt. Shamalia

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