Tuesday, February 6, 2024

The View From Here

With the month of February comes the beginning of the very hot dry season here in Damongo and also marks the end of my first year of service. The perception is usually that mission service is a sacrifice. While I understand that at a very simple surface level, I never really looked at it that way. Even before I arrived, I knew that my calling was one of spiritual enrichment. While I was coming here to share my talents and experiences with people I did not know on the other side of the world, I was more keenly aware that I would be gaining much more from them - learning about a new culture, challenging myself and thus growing. How could gaining those things be considered sacrifice? I have not been disappointed in my expectations. The people here are very gracious and thankful. I do my best to reciprocate. They say that time flies when you’re having fun. It has. And I am.

My duties here have mostly entailed trying to make the Diocese of Damongo’s sole source of income, The Unity Centre, a more viable and profitable venture and thus bolster the Diocesan pastoral mission to provide for its people. With my background as a restauranteur, I have been able to advise management and staff on universal practices such as organizing and expanding the menu, profit margins and labor management. My contracting experience has enabled me to construct a low fence around the property to keep vehicles and roaming animals away from dining and drinking areas, enclose areas of the restaurant and bar for more efficient operation, replace doors and locks to maximize security, install cameras and lighting to ensure safety and adding a modern stereo system at the bar.

Over the holidays my restaurant and contracting skills combined to create a new grilling station near the bar area by reusing material stored in the warehouse. Just as Americans consume chicken wings and other appetizers, the people here crave those quick and easy foods while they relax with their favorite beverage. Of course, the cuisine here is different, though western influence is expanding food desires as well as a plethora of other items through internet connectivity. There is a demand to have those things that we have in the West. Since the end of the year, our grilling menu has expanded to include skewered beef sausage, chicken gizzard and other popular meats as they are available, as well as guinea fowl (a popular local poultry) and tilapia. Future plans will include such western staples as hamburgers, french-fries and constructing an adjacent station devoted exclusively to pizza which is popular the world over and also a specialty of mine. I am also planning to renovate the bar itself with new tile flooring, a fresh coat of paint and design to give it distinction and a big screen projection TV, as sports and beer are also very popular in this soccer-crazed part of the world.  


The much-anticipated Jubilee House, a brand new 3 story, 34 room guesthouse, also opened at the end of the year. Damongo was named the capital of the new Savannah Region of Ghana five years ago and is adjacent to the internationally renowned Mole National Wildlife Reserve. The diocese is priming itself to be on the cutting edge of all the expanding demands of growing population and tourism. It is my job to help in that process.

I am also very thankful for the refurbished truck that was provided by generous donations last November. Not only does it help in general operations- procuring restaurant and bar supplies, as well as my own contracting material, but is also utilized for getting some employees to and from work, as well as church, and a variety of other uses. Travel is difficult here and costly. The average employee makes about $45 per month. Rides to town, where most of them live, costs about a dollar round trip. As I try unsuccessfully to do the math of individual monthly budgets of those I work with, I’m convinced that the community values which inspire the people here to share and look out for one another is the glue which holds this place together. It appears the truck has become part of that glue.

As I stated in my opening, my learning and spiritual growth here greatly outweighs any perceived sacrifice. Sure, I miss my adult children and occasionally see mouth-watering food items on social media that make me miss my home and its luxuries. However, watching the ways that people move forward here with far less of what we normally measure our society by- capital, industry, infrastructure, etc.- is truly inspiring and I am more than honored that they accept me and let me take part. The one asset that is not so measurable, but in great supply here, is human spirit. Through cooperation among each other and support from outside groups and donors like Lay-Mission Helpers, I find myself growing by observing and living with a people who do not accept defeat from a world that often measures ‘success’ in ways not so natural to them. While the mission plan here is invaluable, I often think that in many ways the people of Damongo could teach those of us in the West a certain spiritual mission work of their own. The view from here makes that point difficult to ignore.

Friday, January 12, 2024

Receiving

‘…it is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (Acts 20:35)

These words, attributed to Jesus, are familiar to all of us. They are especially relevant during the holiday season. We are taught that it is the giving that is most important; being selfless and by doing so, enriching our spirit and growing closer to God. Few of us could argue with embracing this ideal. However, receiving is also very important. Not in keeping track of how much we can accumulate or how we can satisfy our very fleeting material desires, but in the very way we receive from others. Just as each of us gains spiritual growth in our own giving, it is very important that we allow others, especially those of limited means, the dignity and joy of participating in the process. This is one of the most important lessons I have learned during my first year in Ghana.

In all humility, giving has always come very easy to me. Growing up in way that my basic needs were always provided for, and having the ability to work gainfully as I entered adulthood, I always felt very blessed in what I had and was not so attached to any of it.  I rarely said no to the idea of giving.

I find my natural predisposition to give allows for spiritual joy within. It makes me happy. It does the same for all of us. And who doesn’t enjoy the inflated ego that comes with others telling us, ‘Wow, you’re such a great guy (or gal)’ as they pat you on the back? This dark side of giving is why it is so important to give quietly and humbly. The ego has a voracious appetite that will never be satisfied once we give in to its infinite desires. It is a monster that will devour us.

Over the years, I found that I was much more uncomfortable receiving than giving. Of course, I always appreciated when another person took the time and effort to give to me of themselves.  It is no great surprise to me that I have ended up in a place like Ghana, where so much giving is needed. However, accepting the gifts of others is a very foundational cultural norm here. Indeed, it is insulting to not participate in this way.

Coming from such a wealthy country like America and coupled with my predisposition to give, accepting from people of observably much less means can be difficult. For instance, in this culture a person passing by another or a group that is eating is always invited to join. They are very group oriented and much more inclined to share than what I see in our own culture. When offered food, my knee-jerk reaction is to think that I have plenty at home and more money in my pocket than the person offering; that they need it more than I do.

Recently, I provided a ride to a single, pregnant mother of very limited means and her son. She asked that we stop and pick up a small snack at a roadside stand. She bought three. It was late, and knowing I was going home to my well-stocked kitchen, I politely declined when offered one, figuring she and her son needed it more than I did. My reasoning was very well-intentioned. As I thought about it the next day, it struck me that I was denying her the pleasure of giving by not receiving. Not letting her thank me. When I spoke to her about it and apologized, I found that she was a bit angry about it. She had good reason. Just because we have more does not give us the right to diminish the dignity of another, no matter how well-intentioned. It is a participation, not a competition. I’m quite sure I have done this same thing many times in my life without realizing it.

So, I have learned to receive from others graciously no matter who they are or how they appear. I have learned to participate in a more equitable manner; to not always strive to be the hero; to share the responsibility of being my brother’s keeper with others without judgement.

Is it truly better to give than to receive? Like most things in life, there are no absolutes. The ground we stand upon is always changing and so should we. By all means continue to give to those in need. You will see them all around you, unless you refuse to open your eyes. Enjoy your giving quietly. It is good for your soul. But also receive with the same generosity of spirit and an open heart as when you give and remember that all of us are called equally to participate in this spiritually nourishing process.      

Artwork by 8-year-old neighbor


Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Truck Has Arrived

It is with heartfelt gratitude that I can report that the Nissan truck that was paid for by the generous donations of so many family members, friends, and the extended family of Lay Mission Helpers has arrived after 7 weeks of extensive mechanical and body work. Not only were the repairs made, including a whole new engine, but there was enough donated to provide for fuel and miscellaneous expenses for the near future; thus, achieving the goal of alleviating any further strain on a Diocese burdened with plenty of other challenges.

The truck will not only provide immediate dividends in day-to-day operations of the Unity Centre, the Damongo Diocese’s sole source of income, but will also allow me to travel to outlying parishes to make much needed repairs and provide regular maintenance for buildings in need. My own appreciation is secondary. If I could only adequately express the gratitude that the people here feel for the kindness of strangers who live so far away willing to go outside of their own busy lives to help them, I would. My words do not suffice. Please allow yourselves a moment of satisfaction that you have indeed participated in God’s love in no small way by going beyond your own daily challenges to help your needy brothers and sisters on the other side of the world.

While I was discerning my present calling, a priest gave me some very daunting and valuable advice: ‘When God gets hold of you, He will always ask more.’ He failed to mention the other side of the ledger: attempting to fulfill such an obligation is more enriching than one could possibly realize. Indeed, it is us getting hold of God, who is always patiently present within us; realizing our individual callings to slow down, listen, and act according to our own unique, divine gifts.

Life is full of challenges here, but I live in a gratitude which grows by the moment, knowing that each day I humbly attempt to live in a way that continually nourishes my very soul. My only hope is that, in my own small way, I can provide small comfort to those who have become like family. Rest assured, they provide no small amount of comfort to me, as do you all. 

In the end, we are each indispensable links in the chain of God’s love, which is the energy of the universe. It is my fervent hope that, during this holiday season, you can focus not so much on the world’s chaos and those things which cause anxiety, but concentrate on the infinite goodness within yourself and those loved ones that surround you, knowing that that is what nourishes the world; that is what endures. Please keep the Lay Mission Helpers family in your hearts this holiday season. Their work is very noble. The fulfillment immeasurable. And again, THANK YOU!

PEACE LOVE & AMDG

To continue making a difference in this ongoing project or support my other works, log onto: www.laymissionhelpers.org, follow the link to ‘Mark McGraw’s Mission’ and press ‘DONATE’.

 


Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Transportation Needs

‘It’s not easy’ is a very common phrase that I hear in Damongo. I joke with my new friends that it should be the motto underneath the Ghanaian flag. Perhaps it could be translated into Latin: ‘non facile est.’ In truth, things being easy or not is a very relative term. Arguably, none of us has it ‘easy’. When I hear the phrase in Ghana, it is not said with any resentment or sadness. It’s just a statement of fact. The people here are amazingly resilient. Many are used to living on the fringe and making due with what little they have. Being very community and family oriented certainly eases the burdens, at least spiritually. Their traditions place great value in looking out for each other and sharing. Frankly, it’s something that we have lost in the West and could relearn from them.

One of the biggest obstacles here is transportation. While the costs of basic food, shelter and clothing are very relative in the developed and less developed areas of the world, vehicles and fuel are not. Like most developing countries, the most common form of getting from one place to another in rural Ghana is by foot, a healthy tradition I have happily embraced. Longer distances are most commonly traversed by means of bicycles, scooters and small motorcycles. When you see a car or pickup truck, it’s common to see upwards of 15-20 people in and on them (and 4-5 on a cycle!). These are the basic ways Ghanaians attempt to address fuel and vehicle costs. For reasons I will clarify, my role here as a contractor and facilities manager often demands a more utilitarian means of transport: a work-dedicated and shared-usage pickup truck.

The Diocese of Damongo is 11,000 square miles in area (a little larger than the state of Massachusetts) and serves approximately 410,000 people in 13 parishes. While my work is mainly centered at the Secretariat and its Unity Centre Complex (guesthouse, restaurant and bar) as a manager and head of maintenance, there is also a glaring need for my abilities to repair diocese buildings in the outlying parishes. Unfortunately, there is currently no vehicle or driver assigned either to the Unity Centre Complex to take care of such things as food and beverage procurement and the transport of larger maintenance materials or for building maintenance at the outlying parishes. My proposal here will help to solve both issues.

The Unity Centre serves as the Diocese’s sole method of generating income, and often times the restaurant matron and I will engage private transportation to go into town and buy food, supplies and other materials which affects this very important bottom line. To maximize the efficiency of my manager/maintenance role here, it would seem that a vehicle, which is not currently budgeted for, is a necessity.

The Secretariat and the local and outlying parish ministries are the first line of defense in the battle against poverty (national per capita income is about $2200, but far less in rural areas like Damongo and the 13 other parishes). Equally important, is that the church serves as the source of spiritual well-being and community. The people here take great pride in their worship, always clean and well-dressed and participating with great energy in the weekly and special services. Like any other structures over time, the churches and other diocese buildings need repair and would greatly benefit from the simple, regular maintenance that I could provide and thus help to foster that pride and devotion that congregations and employees bring to the buildings. This is a large part of the reason Lay Mission Helpers sent me here and, as of now, is a scope of work that has yet to be addressed mainly because of transportation issues.

Currently, the diocese owns a vehicle (2008 Nissan D22) that needs @$4,300 in repairs to make it safely road ready for travel within Damongo and the more difficult travel to parishes further away. In addition, my licensing, insurance and miscellaneous fees would total @$1,000 and a years-worth of fuel and oil changes is estimated at @$1100 per year. The appeal I’m asking you to consider would total $7,500 (repairs, fees, 2 years of fuel and miscellaneous costs). Any donation would be greatly appreciated as I try to live up to the LMH credo and mission of ‘For we are God’s Helpers.’ (1 Cor 3:9)

You can make a tax-deductible donation on the LMH website www.laymissionhelpers.org by selecting the DONATE button and choosing “Mark McGraw’s Mission”.

Peace and prayers, & my deep thanks in advance!


Friday, July 28, 2023

Pivot

Here in Damongo, the people do not have the luxury of looking at a plate of food and wondering where it comes from. In most cases they can automatically trace it back to the seed or even the long-ago consumed plant that the seed came from. You see, everyone here is at least a part-time farmer. And when I say everyone, I mean EVERYONE- the priest (even the bishop), the accountant, the shop-keeper, the yellow-yellow (cab) driver, the children and everyone in between. Until now, everyone except this ‘roaming obroni’ (stranger) who wanders around town passing out suckers to children. It was past due time for me to pad my resume!

When the newly appointed Nun/Accountant approached me, the Contractor/Restauranteur/ Writer/Obrani-roamer, because she had found an unused 400 square yard plot of land that needed farming, what choice did I have? The restaurant needs food and also to cut expenses. Producing it ourselves helps to solve both issues. This is Ghana. I am here. It’s the rainy season. That’s all that matters. As it was already getting a little late in the season, I realized it was time to pivot. There wasn’t much time to ponder. It was time to get busy with some learning. To be a farmer. Time to be a Ghanaian.

So, I built a fence around the proposed area to keep my fellow ‘roaming’ creatures from sharing in our proposed bounty and then engaged the help of some willing teen-aged farmers in preparing the ground by plowing it. At this point the real learning was initiated. The Nun/Accountant/Farmer began to instruct me. I truly believe that the people here much prefer working the land to the various western skills their lives have been burdened with. Love, purpose and tradition can never be suppressed for long in any of us. They are like germinating seeds. Her eyes gave it away and we mindfully proceeded to navigate through our cultural and language divide. I learned about replanting shoots of tomato, where to place the ‘okro’- our main crop, which seeds to scatter, which to bury- how deep and how many in each hole. Pumpkin, meringue, red pepper, green pepper, beans and a few that I can’t pronounce and won’t know about until they produce fruit or leaves.

I have also learned to pay greater attention to the rain, no longer just concerned about the large cistern at my house being filled by my gutters, but more importantly, how it affects the welfare of those seedlings meant to feed those who are now ‘my people’ and whether I need to haul water when the universe is sleeping on the job. I was also quickly developing an empathy about how it affects my brother farmers. I’m sure I will learn about weeds- unfortunately, the rain benefits the invited and uninvited equally. I hope I learn much less about pests and blights and way more about harvest and food preparation. But besides my desire, most of these things are largely out of my willing hands. They might even require further changes of direction.

My latest pivot has altered my routine in a very positive way. The garden (farm?) is mine to steward for now and for the foreseeable future. It is close to the office I walk to and checking on it each morning- gaging its growth- has become a new and welcome highlight of my day as I optimistically imagine it’s yield. Through learning, I have diversified my purpose, finding another way to value my neighbor through that most basic shared connection- the earth.


Monday, July 17, 2023

Achieving Balance

In every situation we encounter in life, there is a sense of both known and unknown. The known is our experience, the unknown our openness and willingness to learn. Achieving a healthy balance is a key to a fruitful existence.

Recently in Damongo this balance was revealed to me in a very real way. Since I arrived, I've wanted to introduce pizza to the restaurant I'm helping to run and to the area in general, figuring it to be pretty universally popular type food and an untested market for financial growth for a Diocese short on money. I have 45 years’ experience in making pizza, including about 25 commercially. In Damongo, that would make me the expert, right? Kind of... 

You see, some of the younger people here have tried pizza a few times in the bigger cities and have their own ideas of what it should be that are different than mine. When they sampled my version, I was critiqued in ways that I did not expect, and at times had to resist pushing back based upon my relative experience. However, I resisted, realizing that I'm not making pizza in Cleveland for Clevelanders. I'm making it in Ghana for Ghanaians. To be successful in this venture, as in any venture, sometimes means releasing the grip on our own ideas to make room for other, newer ones. Not abandoning one for the other, but achieving balance. That's how life works. 




Friday, June 30, 2023

Go Outside And Say Hello

I walk around Damongo and other parts of Ghana passing out small 'dum-dum' suckers to children. Yeah, I know. Kind of weird. I'd be hauled in by authorities in the US. Believe it or not, there's a method to my madness. 

80% of the area I live in is Muslim. Today was a little slow at work and I left a little early , as it's one of their biggest holy day celebrations: Eid al-Adha, which is a commemoration of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac at God's request (Yes, God was bluffing. And, yes, Muslims, Jews and Christians all share this story, among many other writings and traditions. Go figure.).

As I walked home, I passed a house where a few children regularly come out to collect their tribute. There was more activity than normal and a lot more kids emerged from the house. Thankfully, I was well supplied. We shared greetings and suckers. But before I left, one of the adults beckoned for me to come inside their fenced-in yard. Soon I was sharing pleasantries and smiles with 30-40 people despite the language barrier; snapped a few pictures; and was invited to their feast of roast lamb tomorrow when I pass by again. Because of my strange little habit, I now have 30-40 new friends.

Why am I telling this story? Like the US and every other country, Ghana has all sorts of cultural diversity; based on tribes, languages and religions. As we all know, these can be wonderful things but can also lead to mistrust and worse. I find that people are people- everywhere in the world- sharing many more similarities than differences. Often your ethnic group, government, religion or favorite media outlet will try to convince you otherwise. Turn off your TV. Go outside and say hello to someone you don't know. Offer them a piece of candy! You never know. You might end up with a new friend or even a plate of BBQ. One thing for sure: you'll never know unless you try.


The View From Here

With the month of February comes the beginning of the very hot dry season here in Damongo and also marks the end of my first year of service...