Sunday, January 27, 2008


We humans are rebellious by nature. We run from God, and in those times, he often has to cripple us to bring us back to him.

For Colson, a homeless man limping his way through life in downtown Atlanta, that spiritual phenomenon recently took on a physical dimension. Caught on the street in the middle of a gunfight between people he didn't even know, Colson ended up with a bullet through his lower thigh that sent him for treatment at a local hospital.

"When you runnin' from God," he told me as he sat in the crisp January night, munching on a muffin at a local park, "He sometimes gotta show you who's boss."

In other words, sometimes God takes you out of the game to make you realize who's really pulling the strings.

Without the few bucks he needed for meds, the smell on Colson's clothes and breath told me that he had turned to alcohol to take the edge off his pain. But even through a semi-drunken glaze, the 41-year-old spoke with the kind of desperate and damaged faith forged by slogging through life at the very bottom of the social totem pole. He sat on a bench wearing a orange skull cap to fend off the cold, and I noticed a long, thin scar running along the bottom of his cheekbone, giving him a rugged look as he stared vacantly toward Atlanta's glistening city lights.

Colson wanted two blankets, and he took a whole loaf of bread, but he wasn't too happy about the fact that the more swift of foot downed the last of the steaming broccoli casserole provided by the ministry that had set up shop in the parking lot. His limp had made him late, and although muffins were good fuel, he would've liked a hot meal on a night where temperatures threatened to soon reach freezing. A steaming cup of cider seemed to placate him, and we began talking.

I offered to pray for his leg, and he obliged, mumbling something about needing all the help he could get. We bowed our heads, and I placed hands on his knee. I felt the bandages through his worn, brittle jeans, and asked God for restoration. When I ended, nothing extraordinary happened. Colson just pointed his droopy, brown eyes back up at the city lights, and he began counting his blessings.

Colson's proof of God was not theological. It was experiential. With all that he had gone through, he felt that just being alive shows God is real, active and powerful. The gunfight could've cost him his life or his ability to move his leg, a near death sentence for a vagabond that relies on his mobility for subsistence. But the bullet hit no ligaments or arteries, and the emergency room wasn't far away.

"He's kept me alive for 41 years. I know he's an awesome God," Colson said. He spoke with a wistful tone both suffused with wonder and certainty but strangely subdued at the same time. As he quoted scriptures and proclaimed the glory of God, it was interesting how little hope he had to translate these abstract qualities into the real-life experience of love, joy and discipline.

"So what's your next move?" I asked, trying to get him thinking about the future. Folding tables squealed and slammed shut behind us and boxes rumbled into their seats as the church packed up to leave. I knew my time was short.

Colson couldn't answer, except to say that he believes in a God of second chances, even when it comes to his use of drugs and alcohol, some of the church's biggest taboos. Listening to his words, I began to feel convicted. Though bruised undoubtedly by some mistakes that he chose to make, Colson showed that he knows the true Source of what little power he had left. I hope it doesn't take homelessness for me to display a similar dependence.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Degree Trains Students in Helping Persecuted Church

America is a strange place for those who would practice faith in Jesus Christ, an anomaly in the truest historical sense. Ironically, it's our freedom and Christian heritage that make it that way.

Call them "Christian roots" or not, it's not really debatable that Christianity has at least formed the backbone for the worldview that the majority of Americans have held over the years. The problem with the widespread acceptance of the basic truths of Christianity is that it has created a sort of purgatorial state for the believer with regard to the suffering Jesus promised for those who truly follow his commands. We can always point to some hardship, but it never seems to be the kind that requires true death to self. Not that our concerns are necessarily petty, but it just seems cheap to even compare them with what the rest of the world endures.

Although we've weathered numerous assaults on our traditional right to practice our faith in the public sphere, American Christians have rarely, if ever, been physically threatened for gathering for worship or living out our beliefs.

We've been insulated from the type of suffering that has befallen millions other believers across the globe. If they aren't persecuted directly by their governments, many faithful brothers and sisters fall victim to vicious anti-Christian militants who can't stand the thought of their nations becoming the least bit Christianized.

We can look at the dearth of physical threats in America two ways. The first view says that since our worship is uninhibited, it should be all the more effective in bringing about the changes Jesus requires of us. After all, Paul told Timothy to pray that his rulers and authorities would be favorably disposed to the Church so the believers could practice "peaceful, quiet lives." The problem in American model is that peace and quiet have produced passivity, not fervor.

The other school says that a bit more difficulty would separate the true wheat from the chaff within the church. The threat of violence would force out all counterfeit believers, those whose faith is not strong enough to take the suffering. The problem here is that - at least we hope - we won't have to deal with such a litmus test anytime soon.

So now we're in the awkward position of being enormously saddened by the suffering of world Christians at the same time we're deeply intrigued by it as a foreign phenomenon. It's something far off, like the AIDS outbreak in Africa or child trafficking in South Asia. Just atrocious enough to catch our interest, but far away and culturally foreign enough to all but ignore.

In light of all this, a Christian university in Oklahoma has partnered with Voice of the Martyrs, a ministry that specializes in caring for persecuted believers around the world, to create a bachelor's degree program that helps bring the problem of persecution a bit closer to mind in the U.S.

Oklahoma Wesleyan University touts their Persecuted Church Ministry program as unique in the U.S., a standalone degree that students can also pair with more traditional majors like business, education or cross cultural studies. Others who aren't interested in pursuing an academic degree can take VOM online workshops that provide similar instruction without the same academic rigor.

I don't know how practical OWU's new degree will be in helping students find careers, but I think the spiritual consciousness it will create should foster a heart that's more malleable for the purposes of God. It wouldn't hurt for us to be able to understand the plight of world Christians a bit more. If we do, we'll be less likely to complain about our own circumstances and more apt to help others out, whatever theirs are.

Gorillapod - Best Christmas Gift Ever

Of my flood of Christmas gifts, the one I had to wait for the longest has in just a few days used its quirkiness - and spidery legs - to climb up near the top of my list of most valuable gifts.

Originally planned to complement a photography book my wife put in my stocking, the three-legged creature's journey to Christmas in Albany, Ga., was delayed by some faulty back-order shipping at LL Bean, but he was well worth the wait.

The gorillapod, a tripod with flexible, rubber-coated legs and joints that wrap around all kinds of surfaces, will allow me to get crystal-clear photos in locations where a normal tripod would have nowhere to stand. The gorillapod can cling to trees, columns, safety rails, arms (for action video) and just about any surface it can latch its little legs onto.

The innovative piece of gear is perfect for someone like me who wants to document outdoor activity without loads of bulky camera gear. Weighing only 1.6 ounces at six or seven inches long, I can slip the gorillapod into my camera bag and not feel like I have a monkey in my backpack.

Ironically, my little pod will probably used more for capturing dull, canned images of people in suits than vibrant, colorful scenery. My desire to learn photography mixes business with pleasure. As an international business reporter, I often find myself at venues where the light isn't perfect and stability is necessary for a timed shutter release that will give me crisp photos. I already feel out of place sometimes as I hobnob with the bigwigs. I can just imagine the looks I'll get when I wrap the gorillapod around a wine glass, an opulent centerpiece or the microphone on the podium at my next formal gala.

Although my gorillapod is made for handheld cameras, the splendid little creature has larger, more evolved cousins that come in various bright colors and can support heavy SLR cameras so that the pros can join in the fun. It can also be used as a base for a Web cam for those who don't have one built into the laptop. Manufactured by Joby, the pod's MSRP is $24.95, but you might find a cheaper version if you get lucky on Ebay. At L.L. Bean, the gorillapod starts at $22.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Kurds

This is the second in a series of profiles of international residents in Decatur. The first installment tracked the story of a Colombian now working at an apartment complex here.

Mustafa can’t read Arabic. A Kurdish Turk from Ankara, the capital of Turkey, where more than 90 percent of citizens call themselves Muslim, it’s almost a given that he considers himself the same. But the nine-year resident of the U.S. and co-owner of Café Istanbul in Decatur is far from fanatical about his religion. He abstains from pork, mostly because disdain for it is so ingrained in his culture, not because he really thinks it unclean. He says all the food at his restaurant is halal. In Arabic, the word means “permissible,” but it has come to describe an Islamic food classification similar to Jewish kosher laws. He serves it not because he believes it imbues his restaurant with holiness. It’s enough for him that it brings in profits from the consumers who want their food that way.

We had come to research the halal phenomenon as a business story for my job. Any city’s ability to attract international business will be directly correlated to its ability to make foreign businesspeople feel at home, and we wanted to investigate the accessibility of halal food in Atlanta. Café Istanbul is close to the office, and it was rated by a halal Web site as adhering to the dietary restrictions on at least some level. The food is amazing, and the atmosphere is top-notch Mediterranean. Customers can choose normal, Western-style tables or opt for a more exotic experience: reclining on posh cushions at low tables throughout two other exotically decorated rooms. Not ones for the status quo, my co-worker, Katy and I plopped down on cushions in the corner in a room with tufted, plum-colored silk covering the ceilings and half-walls and columns separating this middle section from the other two rooms.

After feasting on kebabs and other Turkish dishes, I approached Mustafa and dropped the name of a guy I met at a Turkish event a few months back. He runs a Turkish cultural association in town and told me he knew the owners of Café Istanbul, two brothers who were Turks but Kurdish in ethnicity. Introducing myself, I asked Mustafa to confirm what I’ve heard and told him that we wanted an interview once he finished cleaning a mess left by a party of 10 next to us. He was probably glad they were gone. At first hesitant to puff the hookah, one of the girls persuaded herself to partake by muttering, It's an authentic cultural experience, over and over again.

A few questions in, it was obvious from the rapid-fire intensity of his speech that Mustafa was a passionate guy. He was fiery, and not because he had just demonstrated to the big party how to really suck in and exhale the hookah's flavored tobacco smoke. He had an uncanny way of exuding intensity while maintaining a cheerful disposition, even as he volunteered information about the grave situation underway in his home country. The PKK, a Kurdish rebel group classified by the U.S. as a terrorist group, is fighting against the Turkish government from outposts in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq. Mustafa seemed to think that such extremism gives peaceful, loyal Kurds like him a bad name in their native country. “They might not like me very much right now, but I love Turkey,” he says.

Mustafa also loves the United States. He came three months after his brother Kamal, who while we spoke picked up Mustafa’s slack, scurrying around the restaurant wearing a shirt that said “Got Hookah?” Kamal had won the green card lottery, but Mustafa had to wait for his permanent resident status. When he first got here, he and Kamal worked in an Italian restaurant, but in a strange turn of fate, the brothers decided to visit a local Turkish restaurant they had heard about one Sunday night. The restaurant was closed, but when the Turkish owner came to the door and saw fellow Turks, he ushered them for some drinks and conversation. By the end of the night, Mustafa and Kamal somehow became the proud owners of part of the building that now houses Café Istanbul.

Now a proud green card carrier, Mustafa can’t believe it’s already been nine years since he first came to America. He already thinks a little bit like an American, and that’s gotten him into trouble on occasion. Some stricter Muslims have taken issue with his decision to serve beer—which is forbidden in Islam—in a supposedly halal restaurant. “It’s not their business,” he says, becoming defensive when I ask how he weighs his customers’ varying standards of piety. “If they want to be like that they shouldn’t come to this country. It’s a free country, you know?”

The back wall in Café Istanbul’s largest room is covered by a painted mural. A portrayal of a large, keyhole-shaped doorway topped with a pointed arch draws eyes to a central point in the wall. I ask if this represents the niche in the wall of a mosque that shows devotees the qibla, the direction of prayer toward Mecca. Impressed that I even knew about the qibla (which was originally pointed toward Jerusalem), Mustafa says it’s just a door, but it does have an interesting story. The mural’s painter, a friend, originally included an Arabic phrase above the painted doorway, Mustafa says, scribbling his best impression of Arabic on a pad. One day, a patron complained that Mustafa could not defame the Qur’an by having such words scribbled on the wall. Although Mustafa thought it was just a generic Arabic name, he asked his friend to come back and paint over it to avoid any more disputes.

The few fits of ire the restaurant has drawn pales next to the fanfare it regularly attracts, especially on the weekends. A lively night spot that features belly dancers, imported Turkish beer, knock-you-down Turkish coffee in a somewhat out-of-the-way Decatur location, Café Istanbul threatens to break fire codes every weekend. Mustafa shuffles back over to a table where he had been calculating figures earlier. Grabbing the guest list for the coming Friday, his index finger trails down the page, passing parties of 10 and 15. It stops on a party of 80. “And that’s just from 7 to 9 p.m.,” Mustafa says with pride. Halal or not, Turkish or American, these Kurds must be doing something right.