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 Crossing Barriers

Presentation by George Brown, April 28, 2007
Friendship Force Mid Atlantic Regional Conference, Black Mountain, NC

Here we are in Western North Carolina, tucked amongst the magnificent Blue Ridge mountains. When I was in college I was a counselor at a summer camp a few miles away in Montreat. We loved taking the children mountain climbing. First we’d hike Lookout Mountain. Not too much of a climb, but it was steep and you got a great view of Montreat from the top. Then we’d venture on a day hike up Greybeard—a wonderful hike along a stream—and by the time you were at the top you really knew you had climbed a mountain. But the big climb was the overnight expedition up Mt. Mitchell, the highest mountain in the entire eastern United States. What a great feeling of accomplishment when we made it to the top. And the view could be spectacular, seeing far into the distance.

Think about it. Why do people like to climb mountains? Certainly there is the physical fitness element—it’s good to stretch ourselves physically. Climbing mountains also brings us into close contact with nature, giving a firsthand appreciation for the natural wonders of the earth. Then there is the old saying “you climb it because it is there!” Mountains are symbols of great challenges in life, and getting to the top gives a sense of great accomplishment. Or, maybe like our founder, Wayne Smith, you want to see what is on the other side—hence the title for the FF history written by Charlene Terrell, The Other Side of the Mountain. Finally, there is the view! From the top of a mountain you get an entirely different perspective on your world.

Now, let’s assume we are all new members of the Blue Ridge Mountain Climbing Club. Note that the name of the club is “mountain climbing.” I know there are many good walking clubs, and we’re putting together some great special interest Friendship Force exchanges around the world that feature great hiking and walking opportunities. We call it hiking in the USA; in New Zealand, it is called “tramping” and 28 Americans recently returned from a great experience tramping down under. In England there are “rambling” clubs we can join, and in Europe it is “trekking.” BUT, for our purposes this evening, I want you to image that it is not a walking or rambling club we’ve joined but a real Mountain Climbing Club. We may need to stretch our imaginations a little— imagine we’re all 15 years younger and some of us are 15 pounds lighter. We’re in good physical shape and we’re ready to climb!

We gather at the lake in Montreat on a bright sunny morning, ready to go. We set out for the day. We walk around the lake, we stroll through a meadow, we stop for lunch beside a beautiful stream—and all day we’re walking through magnificent woods. But we don’t climb a mountain. Not even the relatively easy Lookout Mountain. At the end of the day our leader asks us: “How was the day”? We might say we had a nice walk in the woods. But our purpose was to climb a mountain, so we would have to say that the day had been a great failure. We didn’t climb a mountain.

Now, I want you to think about Friendship Force and our purpose. Just as new members of a mountain climbing club need to know the purpose of the club, so do members of a Friendship Force club. Our purpose begins as following: “to promote international peace and understanding by providing an environment where friendships can be established…” That’s the part we all like to talk about. Making international friendships! But our statement of purpose doesn’t stop there. It continues: “…across the barriers that separate people.” If we read the entire mission statement, the two elements must be taken together: making friends across the barriers that separate people. 

We’re not just an international friendship organization. We cross barriers! This is similar to the difference between a walking club and a mountain climbing club. You can get great exercise and you can get close to nature with both. But there is something different about climbing a mountain. Walking is the means not the purpose. Walking is how you get to the top of the mountain, but the goal is to reach the summit. 

So it is with Friendship Force. Making friends is the means but not the purpose—the purpose is to cross barriers. Someday we may decide to change our purpose, to be satisfied with just making friends. That would be like changing a “mountain climbing club” to a “walk in the woods club.” If the barriers that separate people were disappearing, maybe we should consider changing our focus. But, sadly, the barriers that separate people may actually be increasing. Each of us could produce our list of barriers.

Let me share my top ten:
Geography – we’re separated by great distances
History – each community and people sees the world according to a unique historical perspective. 
Customs – everything from food, to greetings, how we raise our children and treat each other, to behavior like smoking and the place of women in society
Politics and ideology

Economics – the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” seems to be increasing
Ignorance – often we just don’t know much about each other
Misunderstanding – sometimes we think we know about each other but what we know is not accurate
Stereotypes – all of the information (and misinformation) gets bundled together in nice, neat stereotypes that defines other groups If we stick to our purpose and hold true to our legacy, we will measure our success not simply by people having a good exchange experience where they make some friends.

Instead, we need to ask “What barriers did you cross?” Were misunderstandings and stereotypes dispelled? Were differences of economics or culture encountered and dealt with? Did ambassadors and hosts struggle with and overcome a language barrier? Did historic divisions between peoples and countries seem to fade as personal connections were established? Did you encounter a new religion and learn to respect its beliefs without compromising your own? Did ambassadors and hosts come to understand that differences don’t have to divide? If none of this happened, was the Friendship Force purpose fulfilled? Or did folks just have a good time together? Did they climb a mountain, and find that because of the view from the top they now see the world differently? Or was it just a nice walk in the woods?

Just as it is easier to talk about climbing a mountain than actually do it, so it is easier to talk about crossing barriers than actually achieving that goal. And after 30 years, we may find that we have gotten a little soft in our “barrier crossing” skills. But as I look around the world at what is being accomplished by the Friendship Force, I see that significant barriers are being crossed, and that new opportunities are emerging to take us to new heights as we approach some very tough international challenges.

What is missing, however, is putting this in the context of our mission, and in recognizing that we should be able to validate every exchange experience in the light of our purpose. We also need to do a much better job of differentiating our exchange experiences. Just as I wouldn’t recommend climbing Mt. Mitchell for the novice or the old-timer, Friendship Force exchanges that are taking on serious barriers are not for everyone.

How do we put all of this in practice? I suggest that we look at each exchange as providing the opportunity to “establish friendships across the barriers that separate us.” Here are some examples:

Regular club exchanges that focus on increasing cultural understanding
Here are two examples:
(a) We need to restore relations between the USA and Western Europe—making friends with former friends. This means that even what would normally be seen as a very routine visit to Europe can be transformed into a meaningful Friendship Force exchange…but only if this theme is developed in a careful and sensitive way.
(b) There are huge cultural differences between Americans and Japanese—and the best way to encounter, explore and understand those differences can be a Friendship Force exchange.

Teacher and professional development exchanges: Americans grow up knowing so little about other countries and cultures. When you take this basic ignorance and add to it the mis-information that is so often encountered through the media the results can be frightening. But what if we use teacher exchanges to link teachers, who link students, who link communities? One teacher exchange with 20 Thai teachers coming to the US and sharing information with 20 American classrooms can lead to significant changes in knowledge for hundreds of families, which can in turn lead to changes in attitudes. Through teachers, we can change the way our youth see the world!

Humanitarian exchanges: There is so much poverty and economic injustice in the world. “But what can I do?” is the refrain we often hear. Through humanitarian Friendship Force exchanges we can bring to life our slogan “I can make a difference.” We did this with emergency relief in Indonesia and New Orleans. And we’re doing it in Iringa, Tanzania. Interestingly, when I asked one of our Tanzanian leaders what we should call such a program he suggested using a Swahili phrase “Shoulder to Shoulder.” I really like that as it conveys the spirit of mutuality that is so essential with Friendship Force. 

Exchanges with the Muslim world: For those who are ready to tackle a real barrier—and one that we all can agree is of top importance in the world, let me suggest a new initiative that we are exploring: improving understanding between the Muslim and non-Muslim world. Wayne Smith’s final initiative was to begin interfaith pilgrimages in Atlanta, giving Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders the opportunity to develop personal friendships while on a pilgrimage to Turkey, Israel or Jordan.
Over the past four years, more than 150 have participated with astounding results: People of different faiths who before didn’t know each other are now close friends and are providing dynamic interfaith leadership in Atlanta. Similar programs could be initiated in other cities.

In addition, we are now working to expand our international exchanges linking Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Like the idea of a challenge? Want to take your club to a higher level by crossing a very significant international barrier? This could be just the ticket. If we set our minds to it, I am convinced we can bring back to all our exchanges a renewed focus on crossing barriers. We’ll still enjoy all the elements of making friends and visiting new places. But we’ll have the added benefit of knowing that we are also making an important contribution to crossing the barriers that continue to separate the people of the world. 

So which will it be? A walk in the woods? Or climbing mountain peaks? Simply making friends and enjoying new places? Or crossing barriers? 

When you return home to your clubs and talk about your club’s purpose and plans for the future, I hope you’ll share this challenge with your members. Find new ways to involve all your members in our important mission of making friends, but don’t stop there. Challenge your members to see and to live our true purpose, which is making friends across the barriers that separate people.

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