This week I started reading The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Now I’m only two chapters is, which sounds super impressive but let me just say that I’m also two hours in because this book is ridiculously long and each chapter takes me a little over an hour to read. In the second chapter we meet some monks, namely a monk named Philip. Toward the end of the chapter (SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!) Philip is presented with the position of prior. There is a lot that needs to be done at this monastery and Philip weighs his options in his mind – should he come in swinging, cracking the whip from the get go or should he put in some time first, let everyone get to know him and then slowly start implementing change?
Not too long ago the head pastor of my home church retired after serving the same congregation for thirty years. Our new pastor is only a few years older than I am and he brought some change, as was to be expected. He, however, grew up in the church and has been slowly implementing change over the past two years, not wanting to shock or upset anybody but still striving for forward motion and progress.
Some of us are movers, shakers, and problem solvers. We come into a place, organization, church, or city and we immediately see everything that could be better. We mentally make lists of improvements that not only could but should be made and we daydream about delivering the message of our good intentions to the guys in charge. We cannot believe this place, organization, church, or city has lasted this long without us because we are chock full of good ideas for making things better. The thing is, humans don’t really respond well to outsiders breezing in and telling them what to do. It’s not cute. It’s also not humble or helpful.
My missions professor (and others) often talk about drive-by missions. We swarm a low-income neighborhood one afternoon, put on a wonderful VBS program for the kids, have a barbecue and feed the masses, and then we swarm out again patting ourselves on the back for a job well done. We fly to exotic lands and take pictures with smiling children and then we fly home again and fancy ourselves world-changers. Drive-by missions. Not cute. Not humble or helpful.
I just read this blog post about Sci Fi and Fantasy writing and how when you’re constructing a world full of fantasy creatures and/or aliens, you have to take some things into consideration. Things like biology and DNA and economic resources and a dragon’s calorie intake. I commented, “That sounds like so much work!” Because it does. Because it is. Which is why I write YA and non-fiction. Ain’t nobody (named Suzanne) got time for figuring out a species reproduction needs. (By the by, you know who does all this really well? Orson Scott Card. Dude covers his bases and knows his worlds.)
Here’s the thing, doing things well usually times time and effort. Here’s the other thing, time and effort are not things more middle class white Americans (named Suzanne) are really into. We like words like convenience and instant. Just last night I was lamenting my lack of Taco Bell and how if I wanted to eat dinner I actually had to go to the grocery store and buy food and then bring it home and cook it and stuff. Ugh. So much work!
I’ve lived in San Pedro for two and a half years as of Thursday. That is to say, I’ve put in some time. And it’s now, after this two and a half year period of settling in, that I feel like I can move and shake and problem solve. Because I have the background information, because I know the lay of the land, because I’ve put in my time. Because I’ve worked up enough street cred to speak up every once in a while and be listened to.
But gathering up this street cred took like, two and a half years! And it meant like, listening to people and actually hearing what they are saying (instead hearing what I wanted them to say or thought they should be saying). Street cred is earned by spending time on the street with people who live there. It means moving in. It means doing life together. Street cred comes from learning the ropes, from earning the privilege to peek behind the scenes by doing good and abundant work in front of the scenes.
In my first couple months here I hardcore burned my leg on a motorcycle muffler. I have a huge scar on the inside of my right calf. (HEY – Don’t mount or dismount a motorcycle on the right side of the thing! That’s where the hot muffler is.) Almost every Dominican who saw that bandage or that festering burn or that scar has said, “Tu eres dominicana!!” My burn earned me street cred because by burning my leg on a motorcycle muffler I was experiencing what most of the population had experienced just living their lives. I got my burn on the way to the grocery store. Just living my life. Mi vida dominicana.
So here’s the thing (or rather, the things) about street cred:
- It is necessary for effectiveness. If you want people to listen to you, you have to have their respect and their attention. The best way to get their respect, is to first give respect. The best way to get a friend is to be a friend. The best way to be loved is to give love. So if you want to move and shake and problem solve and be a productive part of what is happening in an organization, ministry, church, or city, you have to have street cred. People have to know you and be able to vouch for you. Which means you have to have a decent reputation of doing what you say you’re going to do and doing it well. You also have to have a reputation of being real. You can’t enter into a group with an agenda. Value the organization, ministry, church, or city for the people who make it up. They have something to teach you. Straight up. So spend some time learning. And once you’ve done that, once you’ve learned some things, you’ll know what of you is worth sharing. Once you’ve listened for a while, you’ll know when it’s your turn to talk and what you should say.
- It takes time. It can’t be rushed. Gaining that street cred takes time. It takes energy and effort and discomfort. It takes getting you out of your comfort zone and into someone else’s comfort zone and humbly asking them to show you around. It takes years of doing or saying the wrong thing and feeling really dumb. But over the years you will do or say the wrong thing less and less, which is some encouragement. My missions professor says one of the best things you can say when learning someone else’s comfort zone is, “Help me to understand.” In order to know and understand what an organization, ministry, church, or city needs versus what you think they need, you’ll have to spend some time living with them. Because then their needs will become your needs and your mind and your heart will be clear to work toward solutions together, listening to and learning from each other, building something together. That takes time. Listening takes time.
- It can’t be forced or faked. In building relationships with people you have to be yourself. People are not dumb. We know when someone is being fake. We know when someone is trying to force something that isn’t there. We know when people have an agenda, especially when they’re people with money coming up into our neighborhood talking about how they have all the answers. We see through that. We all do. We have to give each other some credit and be real. Which means we have to be vulnerable, which is an even scarier word than time or effort. It means we have to allows ourselves to be seen in the process of seeing others. It means we can’t come in with an agenda other than “more God” or “more peace” or “less hungry” or “less hurt.” We have to have the same vision, an of-one-accord vision. If you’re keeping track of those street cred points, you’ll never get there.
- You’re never there. Speaking of “getting there,” you never will. If you’re moving out of your comfort zone and into someone else’s, that will never completely and fully be your comfort zone. Even if I spend the rest of my life in the Dominican Republic, I will never be Dominican. I will never think Dominican thoughts or feel Dominican feelings. Everything I ever say and do will be filtered through a white middle class American mind. And that’s okay. Because that’s who I am and there’s nothing I can do about it. And because white, middle class, and American are not bad things to be. What’s not okay is believing you are there, painting yourself as something you’re not, assuming you’ve learned it all, assuming you can take over now because there’s nothing else to learn. That’s not street cred, that’s pride and stupidity. That’s helping that hurts.
I’ve said before that I struggle with the long-term-ness of life. I want to do everything right now. I forget that I (Lord willing) have years ahead of me. I don’t have to do it all right now today. I have years to go to seminary if I want to do that. I have years to get married and have babies. I don’t need to rush any of that and cram it all in to my twenties. There is life after thirty. Abundant life, even. We want to cram everything in to right now. We want to see big changes happen in short periods of time. But that’s just not the way life works. How many years did Jesus spend on this earth before starting his ministry? Thirty! And then He spent three years just hanging out with people, living and loving, learning and teaching. He did a fair bit of moving, shaking, and problem solving in those years, too but by that time He had so much street cred! Thirty years worth!
That’s the kind of impact I want to have. One that lasts. I want to be known as a faithful shower-upper and a good listener. Sure, I would love to be remembered for solving a few problems here or there, but if I want to be remembered well for solving problems, I have to understand and be understood. Which takes time and effort.