Part Two - From Small Town American Girl to Global Citizen
Updated: Apr 10
By Bettie J. Durrah
Several other global encounters included observer status at the 6th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Zimbabwe in 1998. I joined a seminary group that was led by a Zimbabwean professor who lives in the States. This time, I lived in the home of a Zimbabwean family, and I was able to experience how some Africans live and see the sharp contrast of
where/how the family’s “houseboy” lived. That year, I was also able to experience less emphasis being placed on Christmas and to carry that same spirit over into my
personal life upon returning home. From that time on, I have always wanted to spend Christmas holidays in another part of the world. At one of the bible studies in which I participated; I was able to greet again that leader as she spoke in the Atlanta area. When I missed seeing the best part of Victoria Falls, the guard let me return the next day without paying the admission price a second time because she remembered my conversation with her about “correcting the colonial history” of who “found” Victoria Falls, no matter what the signs said.
After participating in the meeting of the All-Africa Conference of Churches in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1997, my group, (Religious Heritage of the African World -Interdenominational Theological Center) visited the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. These 11th century rocks were crying out to me as an African in the Diaspora. “Take off your shoes, my sister, you are standing on holy ground.” I wrote an essay, “Look to the Rock,” and it was included as one of the three resources that I wrote, as I also assisted in compiling that resource for publication by the Religious Heritage of the African World, Interdenominational Theological Center, Atlanta in partnership with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Two other international trips going the route of the tourist were full of surprises, though expected. A ship excursion that started in Rome, led to a stop in Cadiz, Spain, a non-descript small port, I heard someone call my name. A woman from upstate New York had joined her spouse and his Elmira College Spanish language students for an excursion—it was one of my Presbyterian acquaintances. On still another occasion, walking around Paris, I called out to a Presbyterian acquaintance from Mississippi whom I had seen the previous week in her home state. These were not “real” surprises for you might meet many persons whom you may know as you travel. That happened at other times, and at other times, I was greeted by persons whom I had met in the States. It was serendipitous that a Rwandan woman whom I had met the previous year in Ethiopia, and now in Zimbabwe, even told me about a fraudulent deal that took place in Ethiopia the previous year by a member of my traveling group. I gave her the money, and when I returned to the states, I related the incident to the leader who reimbursed me. We, Westerners have also been known to cheat especially in certain countries, not understanding the full implications of our deeds. I am not talking about bartering! I must reiterate that all of this was before cell phones! We were one year away from the Ethiopian experience and many countries removed, but the evil that one does will eventually surface!
I will always remember that I was not so hospitable with the Ethiopian family with whom I stayed overnight when I did not drink the coffee that was specifically made for me. Even though I do not drink coffee, and said so from the beginning, I have always felt that I should have taken the coffee anyway! It would not have hurt my digestive system!
There have been many opportunities to meet and share with persons from around the world from an ethics professor in Prague, Czechoslovakia (at the time, this church official predicted that his nation would not dissolve, but it did (to Czech Republic), shortly after we met in 1988 in North Carolina. It was he who led a group to talk to conference officials about some negative comments about racial matters that arose the first night of this global mission conference.
I have artwork from around the world representing some given to me, including a picture hanging in my dining room from a Russian governmental official. I use a Malagasy game that I learned in Africa to break the ice when I interact with many young children. I, also, keep learning about Palestine, etc. I have attended so many workshops and many events with a global theme: “Year with Africa,” ‘Year with Latin America,” ‘Thursdays in Black,” you name it. My written words have been dramatized!
As program staff for a national gathering of Presbyterian Women, I invited a Palestinian clergyman, who never fails to remember me each time I see him as he returns to the United States. Three years later, as national administrative staff for the global affairs committee, I had the responsibility of coordinating international travel and programming for another major event for Churchwide Presbyterian Women. My follow-up letter to the participants, once they returned home, led me to know that my Egyptian sister did not think of herself as “African” based on the way she responded to my letter, paraphrasing Langston Hughes’ poem, “Brothers.” I will leave that geopolitical discussion for another time! The Middle East conflict still divides this nation. I have not been able to travel to the Middle East, but many persons from the area have come to the States. I always support my Palestinian-born clergy friend in all his endeavors in the Atlanta area. My trip was cancelled many years ago, and I just have not been “brave” enough to travel to the Middle East in recent years. I keep reading, attending sessions, and saying that one day, “I will go.”
I cannot begin to tell you how my life has changed because of my many global excursions—both in this country and outside of it. I cannot tell you how many persons I have squired around Atlanta visiting various places, including a stop on Sunset Avenue in SW Atlanta so that a South African clergyman (whom I first met in Cape Town) could talk with one of the sons of M L King. My airport excursions have included picking up someone who only spoke Portuguese and contacting Atlantans for another Brazilian woman who shed some light on “colorism” for me. I also provided hospitality in my home for a young man who was scoping out seminaries to attend. Not once did he mention a single piece of African artwork from his home country in my home, some prominently displayed, as he descended the stairs daily. Yes, it did hurt for a time! He also did not choose an Atlanta school.
I cannot tell you how many demonstrations I have been a part of - especially the ones that related to anti-apartheid, and capital punishment. I also demonstrated in 1988, in front of the US Embassy in Nicaragua. I have invited numerous persons to speak at my local church, including a Central America speaker, who caused a negative stir in my church because her words offended a Reagan-appointed staff.
I cannot tell you how many books/documents I have in my personal library from Kairos Palestine, Belhar Confession (now incorporated into my church’s Book of Confession), and many more. I could not begin to tell you the number of seminars, workshops, etc. that I have attended, many at my expense, but this is what has brought me joy, sometimes cacophonous moments, and at other times pure, unadulterated joy. I have written many “Minute for Missions” in my church for various speakers. I have written many letters, made telephone calls, and supported monetarily many causes, I have written many articles, and chore poems (choral readings), some of which have been published, some in international publications. Presently, I am treasurer for an organization that promotes initiatives and projects among African people and Africans in the diaspora.
I have, thus, had a great immersion experience over half century. I have seen the world change during this time. I have changed. Many people around me have changed! I may still write a book. Most of my choreopoems have been sent to the Presbyterian Historical Society where persons can find them in the future. Some of my writings are in various publications. My chore poem that has received greatest publicity is called “Colors of the Human Family,” It was produced by the Third World Women’s Coordinating Committee for the Gathering of 5,000 Presbyterian women in the Hall of Music at Purdue University in 1982 and in the same Hall in 1983 by another national church group. It has been produced all over the U.S.by various women’s groups. My traveling group produced it in South Africa at a church in Cape Town in 1984. Churchwide Presbyterian Women produced it again in 2012 in Orlando, Florida, and added the story of the Middle Eastern woman to the story of African American, Asian American, European American, Hispanic American, and Native American Women. That dramatic presentation set me on a trajectory for using my writing skills to create readings which would help to change the mind set of others -- especially Americans with privilege. During the last year, that portions of the same chore poem is getting publicity as part of a striation produced by college students in the Philadelphia area in the garden of the Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, around the statues of some of the colonial “fathers, one of whom is John Witherspoon. It reads, thusly:
“Color me black, yellow, red, brown…
Color me part of the human family…”
What does all this mean! My global experiences have made me a new person, with new language, new perceptions, and one who has been stretched from end-to-end and who works every day to make this world a better place. “Think globally, and act locally” is my mantra. I am still learning and growing. There is no going back! “We are each other’s destiny,” according to Mary Oliver in one of her poems.