Anticipating the transfer of power about to occur in the US, I tuned into events there these last 10 days or so more than I usually do, now that I live in London. While I, like many, was grieving the loss of the Obamas before they even left the White House, one thing that really struck me was the myriad of ways they found to say goodbye. Regardless of your political views and whether or not you are/were a fan of Barack or Michelle, it was a window into strong leadership and what it looks like to finish well.

Here are just a few honorable mentions:

-Returning to where it all began in Chicago for one final speech where Obama thanked his supporters, his staff, his wife and daughters, and his #2, Joe Biden, making it OK for many there and those us of us watching at home, to let the tears fall.

-Receiving the Chicago Cubs in the White House as his last public event on none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr Day, prior to volunteering for the last time as President.

-The final razzle dazzle party at the White House with a spread of celebrities

-Obama’s final press conference

-Awarding Joe Biden with the  Medal of Freedom in a meeting in which Biden had no idea this honor was coming. And thanking him profusely and in so many different ways as he gave that gift that Biden broke down and wept openly.

-The party he hosted in his private residence for 30 of his closest aides on the eve of the Inauguration

-The final goodbye with 300 staffers with tears and hugs all around at Andrews Air Force base after Trump had been sworn in

Not to talk of the final TV interviews, the last interviews for the press, Michelle’s final public appearance, the article in the Harvard Law Review describing the need for criminal justice reform, commuting the sentences of 300 people (over 1700 during his presidency), and all the private goodbyes to the White House staff as well. And then there were all the ‘Thank you’ tweets, now archived under @POTUS44 & @FLOTUS44. (Pretty incredible; check them out!)

Probably as much for them as for all of us who are sad to see them move on, the Obamas created many, many, many opportunities to express their appreciation to the American people, to those who worked alongside them, and to show their gratitude for the extraordinary privilege it was to serve the US for the past 8 years.

They’ve made saying goodbye a little easier, a little better, and a lot healthier.

For those of us in any positions of leadership or influence, or even when we are making far smaller transitions in our own lives, we might do well to consider the value of the long goodbye and the gift of finishing well.

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So I arrived in London 3 weeks ago now and though I’ve been here many times before, it’s been over 25 years since I spent 21 or more days here in a row. You encounter a place very differently when you live there than if you are here on a short visit. You are more on alert, paying keener attention to street names, bus routes and train stations, where the doctor’s & dental practices are, the different ways you can top-up your travel card, what events the local library is hosting, who the families are that live along your street beyond the neighbors down below and on either side, what day the rubbish gets picked up, how late the corner shop stays open, the list could go on and on. Yes, the ordinary aspects of every day life — many not germane to someone on holiday — become very relevant to a new resident.

When I lived in New York, I frequently heard that it was the “greatest” city in the world. I’m not going to take that on here, but from my observation alone, London seems far more multicultural than my experience of NYC. Though there isn’t a significant Latino presence here, I’ve been struck by the wide variety of southeast Asians, many different kinds of both Western and Eastern Europeans, and a greater variety of Caribbeans & Africans. The Nigerian presence is very high, from hearing Yoruba (one of the 3 main languages) spoken at the airport, to meeting a young Buddhist Londoner at church. When she heard I was part Nigerian, she didn’t hesitate in trying to guess which tribe I was from! In all my years in New York City, many Americans barely knew where Nigeria was located– even some close friends had trouble locating it on a map of Africa — and hardly any could name it’s 3 largest ethnic groups. The reach of the British Empire accounts for much of London’s heterogeneity but so does the UK’s proximity to the refugee crisis that has gripped the middle east but spills across Africa and western Europe. As both mainstream political parties consolidate their leadership here, there is much talk of how to curb immigration which is not unrelated to concerns about what it means to welcome ” the other.”

Living in a new country is exposing my heart in new ways too: It’s surfacing grief at leaving the life I had come to love — especially the many rich and varied friendships — along with generating deep gratitude for what that was. And there’s some sadness lurking because I didn’t fully appreciate that community while I was a part of it.

The experience of being new here is also extremely humbling:

  1. There is far more that I don’t know about how things work than I’m used to and that’s not a very comfortable place for me. I, like most of us, feel more myself when things are familiar.
  2. I know few people and have fewer friends (2 @ this point!) –though am v grateful for those precious few and the wonderful network of people they’ve brought me into contact with already.
  3. I don’t have a job. And I’m not sure what that will be or look like here. Or when it will materialize but I’m OK with that so far.                                                                                                                                                                                  In being humbled, I find myself having greater compassion: for those who are lonely and without any family or friends; for those without a job, unable to work, or those who’ve been looking without success for what feels like a long time; for those uprooted from their homeland due to war or famine or some other crisis and forced to navigate a new culture in a country that has welcomed them with reluctance.

My current situation requires patience and perseverance but it’s stretching me in ways that are healthy and good, and for that I give thanks. It also gives me a small sense of what I share with the millions of displaced people across the globe and helps me to see many glimpses of just how fortunate I am.

 

 

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I flew into JFK 26 years ago this month from London with 2 suitcases. Tonight I fly out of JFK and back to London. I take another 2 suitcases (+ 22 boxes that are on a ship somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic).

I leave behind a varied and rich tapestry of friends and neighbors. Incredibly, some of these dear people I’ve known for practically all of my time here, others for a decade or more, and then others I’ve only known a few months. Many friendships were formed and deepened through my tenure at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, first as a timid church goer 18 years ago, and more recently as a staff member for the past 8 years. Others developed in the different tennis leagues I played hard in and those folks generally didn’t know anything about the work I did and it didn’t matter. And with others, relationships developed at Uptown Writers and in the writing groups I joined as we critiqued each others’ pieces and encouraged one another with our craft.

I will deeply miss this web of extraordinary people who I’ve had the honor and privilege of knowing & walking beside.( But am so grateful for the world-wide web and the wonders of technology that will allow many connections to continue, albeit in new forms.)

There are other significant losses too.

I’m grieving having to leave my apartment – though grateful for new friends who will be moving in here. I’ll miss living in my building with the 24 hour security guards, a crew of hard-working folks who don’t make a whole lot of money but who always made me feel welcome especially at the end of weary days. I’ll miss the neighbors on my floor, particularly 90-year-old P. She and I wept together last night as we said goodbye and she articulated what I didn’t have the courage to say: “I’m sad because may not see you again.” Perhaps not in this life, I reminded her, but in the next one, where God is waiting for us both. I’m sad that daily walks in the spectacular Ft Tryon Park won’t be possible anymore. And I’m already missing Redeemer’s worship services, and the incredible classical concerts we’d hear following the benediction every Sunday morning with some of the most accomplished musicians this city has to offer.

Yes I’ve been extraordinarily blessed here in this city that never sleeps. I have found places and spaces of deep rest here over the last quarter century and for that I am eternally grateful. As I result, I leave this city a little wiser (and with a head of grey hair to show for it!), but more humble, more joyful, more hopeful, and more courageous. And with a deep sense of how Loved I am.

I’m moving to live with my mother for the final stages of her life to show her how loved she is. She is hugely excited –a confirmation that this time has fully come.

So long New York. A new adventure across the sea beckons.

May God be with you ’til we meet again.

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sign on graves

The first week of April…

  • On this day (4/4) in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, shot on the balcony of a hotel in Memphis.
  • (On this day in 1959, my parents, Gally Brown-Peterside & Elizabeth James were married in a registry office in South London.)
  • On April 7, 3 days from now, the Rwandan genocide began in 1994. It was the Thursday after Easter that year.

Last summer I had the privilege of visiting Rwanda. I was flying from Lagos to Entebbe and since we had to make a stopover in Kigali, I decided to pay a little extra to spend 48 hours there. My main purpose for this was to visit the National Genocide Memorial. I was intrigued by the effort of this nation to remember the terrible events over those 100 days in 1994 when up to a million Rwandans killed each other, many with ordinary garden machetes and clubs. Never before in the history of the world had so many people been murdered in such a short space of time by people who were essentially their neighbors. I wasn’t prepared to see the rows and rows of skulls and bones. I wasn’t prepared to see the walls of remembrance still incomplete and being added to as more names of the deceased become known. I wasn’t prepared for the final exhibit: huge color photos of vibrant, smiling children senselessly murdered, listing their names, ages, exactly how they died, and what they had wanted to become when they “grew up” – the horror, the wasted potential was unimaginable.

However, I think what struck me most were the mass graves, the entombed coffins, and the notations from family members who survived about the significance of having a place to come and grieve and remember. It had never occurred to me that given the brutal way in which loved ones were murdered and the context of genocide, there were often no bodies found, few if any proper burials, and a dearth of resting places to visit on anniversaries. Hardly any sacred physical places to pause, be still in, and remember.

So today, I pause to remember: Dr King’s incredible life and passing and that of the slain Tutsis and Hutus of Rwanda. May their legacies live on. May we never forget.

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I first encountered Clive Staples Lewis at the age of 9. In 4th grade at the American missionary school I attended in Nigeria, our teacher, Miss P (all single women were really called Miss in those days) who was from New Zealand, began reading The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe to us every afternoon from 3:00-3:15. Just before we were dismissed for the day, as we listened to this story, we were whisked through an inviting door into an imaginary world bursting with possibility and hope. However, joy and contentment were being held captive in a land that was “always winter, never Christmas,” until Aslan, a Christ-like figure, broke the white witch’s spell and restored Narnia to its glory days. After we finished this first story, Miss P went on to expose us to the rest of the 6 books in the Narnia Chronicles, the only children’s books that CS Lewis ever published.

These stories began for me a life long fascination with Lewis. I became not only concerned with what he wrote but more importantly for me was discovering who he was, how he’d lived, and what were the events – and who were the significant people – that had shaped him. I learned Lewis was from Northern Ireland, called himself Jack from a young age which stuck, grew up in Belfast in a loving home, lost his mother at age 10, and was then sent away to an English board school in the aftermath of his father’s debilitating grief.  He went on to become a brilliant student at Oxford, a scholar of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and a professor at both Oxford and then Cambridge. Along the way, his views on God underwent a gradual but radical shift. As he repeatedly learned that more and more friends and colleagues at Oxford whom he respected for their sharp intellect were also people of faith, he underwent a process from being a staunch atheist to believing that there was a God, to eventually encountering the God of the Bible in a personal way. Much to his surprise and dare I say even horror, he became in his own words the “most reluctant convert in all of England.” He died on November 22, 1963, the same day that JFK was assassinated which meant that the US President’s death overshadowed that of Lewis.

Now, the Fellowship fo the Performing Arts, has put together a stellar one actor production of Lewis’ journey to faith, starring Max McLean. Aptly called “Most Reluctant Convert,” virtually  of the words in the 90 minute single act drama come from Lewis’ own writings and letters. (As he became more well-known, he received hundreds of hand-written letters to which he replied to each one – by hand.) I saw this show several weeks ago while it was still in development and was incredibly moved at how persistently God appears to have pursued Lewis. Regardless of what you personally believe, Seeing this show is worth insight into that process alone. There’s a run of Most Reluctant Convert in Washington, DC, from April 20 – May 8. Check it out if you get the chance! And if you’re not in DC, pick up an autobiography of Lewis from your local library, or one of his many non-fiction books, and discover this genius for yourself.

 

12angrymen feb2016I came across a chilling piece of data last night while reading last week’s Sunday NY Times (2/14/16) in an article by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Isabel Wilkerson: according to FBI statistics, an African-American is killed by a white police officer roughly every 3 1/2 days. Not shot, but actually killed.

That statistic –while horrifying — is more credible to me after watching a play this weekend based on the book (not the movie), 12 Angry Men: True Stories of Being a Black Man in America. Using 3 actors who took on different characters, we heard how black men across the country, from New York to Washington, DC to LAX airport to Asheville, NC were stopped by the police on suspicion of “being black” and questioned, harassed, insulted and often beaten. In several instances, the men had their pants and underwear pulled down and were left naked, exposed to the public. For others, they told of feeling the cold butt of a gun on their bodies or seeing an officer place his/her hand on their gun during the encounter.  The men were both young and old, professional and working class, driving and walking. One was a former baseball MVP. Several were on the phone. One was at a playground watching his daughter and her friends playing and was approached because someone had called the police concerned that “a black man was in the park watching kids.”

The common threads in these stories were the fact that the men were black, not doing anything out of the ordinary, and they were approached by the police – who, shall we say, were less than friendly or helpful. The men weren’t angry when the police picked them out, though sometimes, but not always, they became angry during the course of the exchange. And lest you think these were one-off encounters, some of these men had been stopped multiple times.

As I watched this, I couldn’t help but wish the top brass in the NYPD and police departments around the country would spend 90 minutes of their weekend hearing these stories. Would it change the way they lead their police departments? How might it impact the ways they view and use racial profiling? The play’s run ended this weekend, but they’re hoping to raise funds to take it on tour. Perhaps until then, the book could be made mandatory reading for every new class of police officers. How might that spark some provocative conversations and perhaps even some soul searching?

Cringing through the production, I also thought of the psychological impact that such harassment has on all of us: those who are harassed, those who do the harassing (some of whom were women and/or black too), and those of us who love the harassed and/or the harassers. Dr. King reminds us that none of us are free until all of us are free. Furthermore, he warns: “if we succumb to the temptation to use violence…, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to them will be a never-ending reign of terror.”  That is never more true now in America than it was 50 years ago when he uttered those words.

Lord, have mercy on us.

For someone with a Nigerian father, I have an unusual surname. Not only is my family name unAfrican and all together British but it’s also hyphenated. Hyhenated names, somewhat unusual in the U.S., are usually thought to be formed from the surnames of both parents. From time to time, people who know my background ask about my surname: ‘Brown-Peterside’. Perhaps because my mother is from Northern Ireland, they assume that ‘Brown’ is her maiden name and that ‘Peterside’ is from my father’s side of the family. That part is true, but our surname is a bit more interesting than that.

‘Brown’ is my grandfather’s first name. The tradition is that men on my father’s side of the family take their father’s first names and add them to ‘Peterside’ (the family name) to create a new surname with each generation. My father’s first name was ‘Gally’, short for ‘Galbraith’, so technically my brothers should be: ___ ‘Gally Peterside.’ However, they are not ___ ‘Gally Petersides,’ they are ‘Brown-Petersides.’ The reason  for this is that my father — as a tribute to his father, (Brown), who mortgaged his modest home to be able to afford to send Papa to the best secondary school in Nigeria in the early 1950s (King’s College), — added a hyphen and legalized ‘Brown-Peterside.’ So, we have become a new branch of the Peterside family.

Every Peterside — by birth or by marriage — can trace their ancestry to a compound on a small island in the Delta region of Nigeria, called Opobo Town. For most of my childhood, my grandfather, Brown Shoo Peterside, was the Chief of Peterside compound. He died in 1978 and was succeed by Dr. Peterside, a London-trained physician and the first in the family.  A few weeks ago, Dr. Peterside passed away at the age of 97. This weekend in Opobo, he is being buried in a 10 day ceremony with all the requisite traditions including a regatta of boats that will bring the casket from the mainland to the island with much pomp and circumstance. (Unfortunately, I was not able to go to bear witness to these events.) At some point soon, following Dr. Peterside’s burial, the family elders will select another chief for life.

You may be wondering what the origin of the name ‘Peterside’ is. It’s quite unique I believe in that it’s not Peterson or Petersen which are quite common. Our ancestral home, Opobo, is in the south of Nigeria on the Atlantic coast. When the British, our former colonizers, entered Nigeria this way, many generations back a number of families in this area — not just ours — adopted British-sounding names. It is believed that our original name was Biriye but no one seems to recall how or when the switch to ‘Peterside’ actually occurred.

So there you have it: a British family name long adapted from a Nigerian one and a lasting tribute to a (grand) father who made costly sacrifices.

Below is a statue of my great great grandfather (Sunju Sima Peterside) atop his grave. This monument sits in front of the home where my grandfather (Brown Shoo Peterside) is buried, in the living room.

sunju peterside statue opobo