We both felt the approaching melody in "The Next Episode" Instrumental by Dr. Dre. Sure enough, John Lim (I'll introduce you to him soon) came by and took responsibility for the tune takeover in Jubala Coffee. We were very pleased. Even if we weren't, I'm glad that people like Derrick know that you can't please everyone. As a campus pastor, Derrick daily surrenders the desire to receive the approval of others in order to fully experience a relationship with God and the opportunity to share it with others. Sometimes that looks like leaving his phone off at home when he's stewarding his #1 ministry, his family. Other moments, it looks like intersecting relationships with his daily activities. "I'm getting back to the point where I can play basketball," he told me with excitement. I'd say that sports are one of the greatest settings for authentic relationship. In fact, basketball is where Derrick was challenged by his high school coach to pursue a deeper relationship with God. As a leader, Derrick is now challenged to submit in his relationship. "I have to ask myself, 'Is this for God's glory or Derrick's glory?" he shared with me. He has to be the #1 follower at his church. It's a beautiful privilege. What's interesting about submission is that it can also be a place of rest. "Rest shows us we are in need of a Savior." Rest allows us to be realigned, recharged and reaffirmed. We're at our best when we're at rest.
I was overcome with a boisterous laugh in a very mellow restaurant. As Alexandria explained to me, she used to be a teacher in China and genuinely enjoyed its numerous, unique cuisine. She told me that it wasn't unusual to eat delicious meals, that included meat, not to far from the grills that cooked them. Hence, meat sweats. Unfortunately, I had to deny that I had never experienced the sensation, but I was delighted by her deep appreciation of culture and great stories. During our preposterously palatable meal at Bida Manda (I'm not exaggerating. I couldn't stop talking about the lettuce wraps) Alexandria shared with me how food has changed her. "Food is such a social experience. I have to share my food when I'm eating with someone," she stated. For someone who initially lacked understanding of food — and the weight of its nutritional and communal values — experiencing different cultures through food was revolutionary." In other cultures, it's crucial to ask questions to gain a better understanding." That includes questions like, why is hot water such a universal cure in certain cultures? How did a student in China know Alexandria loved spicy food based on her complexion? Ask questions. Even better, ask questions over a shared meal with someone you don't know. Push yourself out of your comfort zone, take a bite of a new food and culture, and listen.
What do you get when you combine two unicorns, one that's an auditor and the other an engineer, divine dumplings, a beat-up craigslist truck in a backyard and a crazy idea? You get a run-on sentence and the opportunity to travel the US with Food Network. But, something else that you hopefully get is a deeper awareness of the effects of malnutrition. Sophia and Sunny are NC School of Math & Science "high-school sweethearts" who both have a conviction for change. "Food became a vehicle to connect the community," they shared with me. These women used their Pho Nomenal Dumpling Truck (formerly known as Dump Phucking Truck) to do this. They believe that food is critical for humans to make change in their own lives. Prime victims of malnutrition are kids who live in food deserts; urban areas without grocery markets within a walkable radius. You can see the effects on their report card. Sunny, Sophia and I talked about how significant of an issue this is in our own community and what an even greater opportunity we have to create an impact. How do we do that? "We need to change our community by starting right here," Sunny said. It starts with focusing our efforts in Raleigh and not just with business, but with our personal life. Sophia recently set a great example of this by using her birthday to raise enough money for 9,000 meals through Rise Against Hunger. Pretty incredible accomplishment, right? Well, like Sophia told me, "If your dream doesn't make you feel vulnerable, you're not dreaming big enough."
Everyone wants to find their adventure of a lifetime. For some people, their greatest joy is helping others embark their own expedition. "I'm the backup singer for every human being," Andrew chuckled as we talked. For as long as I've known Andrew Lovette, he gets really excited about promoting people he believes in. Sounds like the beginning of a great music manager, right? Though he truly loves music, Andrew keeps his scope quite broad on the people he sells. Much of that is rooted in the fact that when he gave his life to Christ, being the ultimate hype man became less about himself and more about the people. "It's all about reflecting the people I really believe in. I have a hard time selling myself," Andrew admitted. I think many of us can relate to that confession. For some, the hesitation is a fear of being prideful. For others, it's birthed from a fear of not being enough. The latter is one of the biggest traps of the human race. Andrew accurately believes there's beauty hidden in everyone. But, what soon may be one of his biggest discoveries is that those he lifts up actually believe in his talent and willpower to help them. They trust him. Trustworthy people are gems we all hope to find.
There are many people in the world who've said "I wish I could compete in a triathlon." Some of these people proclaim it from a life they consider a personal prison. A notable amount of them are addicts. Kyle isn't an addict, but he seeks to empathize with those who are fighting their connection to smoking. "Every environment you go in, you go in to seek understanding," Kyle told me he's learned. As the founder of Nicotrax, a startup that creates smoking cessation solutions, he's built a company on a foundation of empathy. Nicotrax carries the understanding that you can't simply ask someone, "Why don't you quit smoking?" Kyle focuses his efforts on contextualizing issues, studying behavioral patterns and, most importantly, being a human. The secret Kyle and I have both learned about successful business is that it's not solely based on creating an exceptional product. The secret is being an authentic experience. Businesses try their best to deliver the experience in their occasional, sometimes daily, output. Where they fail is that many do not know what their internal culture is about. Where they fail is not being honest about their failures. "I think of building a company like building a ship. You keep it from sinking," Kyle chuckled. Sometimes one of the best moves a brand, or just a person, can make is to be honest about some of the holes they harbor and how they mended them. When we do that, it attracts authentic people and inspires customers to be honest about their deep needs. That data is essential for a company to be exceptional at solving problems. That information is imperative for molding an enriching community.
Oh, yes. Emily does like to ask questions. But, what I like about her questions is that they are genuine and thorough. One answer seems to lead to another question. She inquires about intentions, feelings, thoughts and actions. She explores your story gently and celebrates who you are. I got the feeling that she's a believer of people, but more so, God's presence with those people. "Christianese words come out when we try to fix someone's problems rather than just being there with them in the realness of life's messiness," Emily shared with me. Immediately I sat and thought about how often Christians, like myself, sometimes spend more time speaking into someone's life when it might be better to be there with that person in their life. It reminded me of a passage where Jesus said to the disciples, "I was a stranger and you took me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' The disciples were confused because they had no recollection of doing these acts. Then Jesus said to them, "Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for Me." What a mind boggling concept. But, don't get Emily wrong. She keeps it real when the timing is right. "I don't like sugar coating things," she added. That's hard to believe coming from someone with such a sweet smile.
Roberto is the "man with the plan" at Golden Grains in Charlotte, NC. He and his team were up early one morning preparing wholesale baked goods. I noticed he had this finesse in using his hands to create bread. He'd knead, he'd roll and he'd sprinkle (flour, oats, etc.). Roberto was focused and I mean focused. No one spoke much English in the bakery, so it was pretty challenging to capture a story. All I could do was observe and infer the narrative that was being illustrated for me. What I captured was diligence. I heard community. I felt purpose. And I'd bet, for Roberto and his team, "purpose" wasn't just making bread. True purpose was something beyond themselves and unique to each member of his team. They added value to the world they shared each day.
What if that love you give is wisdom in the form of a board game. One day, Jon and his 15 year old brother-in-law, Campbell, were playing Clue. For those who are unfamiliar, in the board game a murder takes place a midst a group of eclectic characters. Each player asks a series of questions in order to discover who the assassin is. As Jon and Campbell played, Jon took the opportunity to give love. Jon was winning the game and Campbell was unsure why. As they asked questions back and forth about the murder, Jon was keeping track of the information that was revealed. Jon taught Campbell that a big key to complex problem-solving is to collect data, analyze it and find a solution. It's why Jon asked so many questions during the game. It led to him finding out who the culprit was. Many times, complex problem-solving requires creativity. "I was the kid who never read the instructions," Jon told me. Surprisingly, we both agreed that one of the greatest developers for creative problem-solving is video games. His top choices were The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Mario 64 and an oddly interesting strategy game called Portals. Games like these make you think outside of the box to achieve a set of goals and be rewarded. To me, creativity is problem-solving. In theory, every person is or can be creative because they have to solve diverse problems, every day. No solution is the same. That means our communities need humble people on different walks of life. We must show love by sharing our solutions with one another.
Lane was awake until 3AM reciting her speech. It was her sophomore year at NC State and she was deathly afraid of talking in front of her public speaking class. She paced her living room retelling her story again and again. When she felt somewhat content, she retired to bed. The clock struck 5AM and Lane awoke in a nervous sweat. She resumed her pacing and her reciting until about 7AM. Because her class was in an hour, she decided to practice in the classroom before students arrived. There she stood, sharing a very personal story about her mother's fight against breast cancer to a room of empty chairs. Soon enough, those chairs filled and Lane told the professor she needed to give her speech first. She received her teacher's permission. During that period between the chair and the front of the classroom, there is a mixture of feelings. Fear, courage, bravery, panic, confidence, disappointment--so many emotions fight for attention. Honestly, none of them mattered as Lane moved from her seat to the stage. She could not turn back. "I killed it. I slayed." she proudly told me during our interview. I believe she did. If you ever get the chance to meet Lane, you can tell by her spirited demeanor that she's a storyteller. "When I give people something I've created, I want it to be the best I can do." To me, that means a powerful story is authentic. It's true to every emotion, sound, hand gestures and plot twists. A great story brings people to the edge of their chair, much like Lane's speech did for her audience and much like she did for me when we had coffee.
Like father, like daughter. Mary-Ann remembers being a child in a middle-class home in Pawtucket, RI hearing her dad type diligently on a manual typewriter; he had a tendency to compose letters there every other week. What was awestrucking was that Mary-Ann's father was a self-proclaimed "gadfly", challenging the status-quo of society. To whom he wrote persistently to were congressmen and senators. His thesis usually centered on the need for universal healthcare. His persistence was rewarded by a senator inquiring about his concern. From that moment forward, Mary-Ann sparked a passion for politics. At the age of 15, she took to the streets campaigning for POTUS candidate George McGovern and later for the mayor of Pawtucket. At some point, Mary-Ann moved to Raleigh, NC to get involved with the Democratic Party. While in Raleigh, she grew concern for public sanitation. It must have been genuine because, eventually, a friend of hers suggested she run for City Council. Mary-Ann laughed.
Even after initially rejecting the idea, Mary-Ann was curious. "I thought, 'If I lose, it'll be okay and could be fun. What's the worst that could happen?" Mary-Ann told me. So, she grabbed her clipboard and took the streets to ask 50 people if she should run. To this day, Mary-Ann has held the office of a City Councilor for 10 years. The humble title hasn't been short of its lessons. Besides doing the right thing (regardless of public opinion), trusting your gut and trying new things, the biggest lesson she shared with me was peculiar. "Don't tell people what to do with their kids or personal property." To be specific, she meant domestic garbage disposals. When the council made a quick call to ban garbage disposals, there was major public backlash. So much, a radio station brought Mary-Ann on for a live interview about the issue. "I said in the interview that we were wrong. I should have inquired a committee. So, we removed the ban," Mary-Ann admitted. I'll tell you, Mary-Ann is the first official I've ever interviewed. I'll also tell you, it was my most delightful time inquiring about someone's life, so far. Though she is in office, I met a person just like you and me. She's human.
Pain is a special kind of teacher. It comes when you least expect it with a lesson that can change your and possibly another person's life. Pain pulls you in. It can cause you to feel alone and possibly lost with no return. For Caroline, pain was her wound. She felt alone, many times by her own choice and desire to keep her belongings to herself. Those belongings were her thoughts, feelings, passions and fears. What she would give to people, was someone different. "I've spent too much time not being who I really am," she confessed to me. What's unfortunate is that the stress she endured played a toll on her spine. I don't mean that figuratively. From stress and life's circumstances, Caroline had ruptured discs and needed a discectomy. Originally, her spine issues were a problem she avoided, as well as other life matters. But as she taught me, our bodies have a special way of communicating to us and must be heeded.
This pain of hers inspired her to empathize with others and help them heal from pain. She did this as a yoga instructor and gained a deep passion for giving people the gift of being known. "Imagine that you're so alone and you don't know that you need another human? What would make you feel better?" Caroline dropped her ego of being an individual and made her life about creating intentional community. As for her being known, her wonderful puppy, Banjo, has been a new refuge. She hopes to be the person her dog thinks she is; she wants to be authentic. From him, her community and the positive home she's building in herself, Caroline is now experiencing a love she's never felt before.
No, that wasn't a joke. Yes, it's probably my favorite hook to get you to read my interviews. Anujin's parents literally sent her off to the circus when she was 9. She got to travel with clowns and others of exceptional talent to entertain and amaze audiences around the US. That's a pretty spectacular opportunity for a child. Meeting Anujin, I could tell she was the product of many experiences. Those experiences included living in Mongolia with her un-biological mongolian parents, learning contortion on the road and training in ballet with a Russian instructor in North Dakota. But, if you ask Anujin, she'll tell you her most jaw-dropping opportunity was meeting her true Father. It began in Arkansas when an old couple in their 70s inquired her parents at their doorstep if they could bring Anujin to church. Her parents, surprisingly, said yes and believed it'd be an enriching experience for their 7 year old daughter. Anujin will tell you that for a long time she had always been praying to "something" or "someone". It wasn't until attending church that that Person shared with her their Name. While attending boarding school in southern Kentucky, Anujin accepted Christ as her Lord and Savior. "God has been my one friend," she told me. But, in the past that friendship had been stifled by her desire to be perfect.
"It's an idol I know all too well and struggle with to this day," I told her. We all have our own definition of perfection. For some, it's perfection in relationships (people pleasing) while for others it's perfection in performance. Anujin's was the latter. She had found her identity in her performance and what people thought of her. Failing was her biggest fear. "I used to be loud and boisterous in college. I found my identity in my personality. Suddenly, God took that away from me. I became quiet and awkward." At first, I didn't believe her. But, then the Spirit reminded me of a story in the Bible where God took away Zachariah's voice. Both cases were acts of love, of course. If you get the chance to meet Anujin, you'll be able to tell her passion has returned, but balanced with meekness. She's a pure joy to be around. She'll listen to you and encourage you. You'll be charmed by her willingness to laugh at herself until her cheeks hurt. And if you're lucky, you'll be greeted with a silly Snapchat from her every day that will make your cheeks hurt, too.
Sometimes my interviews are very short and contain little to no words. That's exactly how it was with Carie. A couple months ago, I was hired to take photos for B.Good at a few of their farms in North Carolina. It was my goal to capture produce and farmers doing their work. In my mind, the work of a farmer is essential to society. Often they are overlooked or their profession is belittled. Yet, they are the reason our nation gets to eat. My favorite Super Bowl commercial of all time was created by Dodge in 2013. Dodge had put together a slideshow of photos agricultural elements with an amazing speech by Paul Harvey. He titled the speech "So God Made a Farmer" and breathed a narrative about God's divine, courageous, yet difficult tasks for a farmer. He illustrated how important farmers were and that, in a way, they are America's homebound warriors.
So, God made Carie. When I walked into the greenhouse of Tega Hills Farm, Carie shyly smiled at me. I returned a soft smile. I could tell that she wanted her photo taken, but was hesitant to ask as she planted saplings. To me, she was the perfect subject. When I asked if I could take her photo, she looked to the supervising farmer for approval, who then responded with a nod. Carie approached the lettuce and gave me such a sweet smile and came out of her shell. In my eyes, people like Carie deserve to be acknowledged. They are so important. What's interesting is that I could tell for Carie it wasn't so much about being acknowledged. I assume life for her was about doing what she was called to do. To be a farmer.
In my previous career in charity I would be asked why I thought orphans were so important. I would intently respond, "They are our future." It's easy to forget that children our the world's upcoming leaders. Chris hasn't forgotten. It's a truth so present on his mind that he's careful about what he consumes. "You're the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with," Chris quoted during our meeting. He spoke about how even what he reads on Facebook News can indirectly affect his 3 children's life. Kids see and hear everything. They're constantly soaking in data about how the world works. That's why it is Chris's priority to show his children that all people are equal, rather than just say it. "I don't care where I sit at the lunch table," he told me as he reflected on high school. His life was changed on a mission trip he joined his senior year where he saw happy people with nothing in Haiti. What they had were rich relationships with one another. Chris thinks he's doing alright in showing his kids this lesson. He shared with me a story where his son was at a friend's birthday party. The children were hitting a piñata and when it exploded, the children naturally scrambled for the candy. All of the children got their share, except one. Chris's son noticed this and shared his candy with the young boy. The other young attendees saw this take place and shared their candy as well. It was one of Chris's proudest moments. In my opinion, it is a great example of the power of living a life of love.
I believe that humble beginnings can mold great people, if they let them. No one has a choice in what resources they have when they enter the world. For Nate and his family, resources were scarce. He lived in a small town in Pennsylvania with a population of about 800 and no stoplight. What his family did have in abundance was tenacity. His father was a machinist who recycled scrap metal and found alternative uses for things that may not be obvious. He also was a grave digger, while Nate's mother did hair for the dead as well as operate as a seamstress and nurse. Nate is the youngest of 8 children. At a young age, he learned how to make something out of what's perceived to be nothing. In fact, he was passionate about it.
Years later, Nate attended UNC Chapel Hill to study German Language. Outside of his core courses, Nate studied an unusually high amount of art classes. He was drawn to them as well as the stories of his professors; one of which who was a neon artist. Neon art intrigued him and after graduating, the shop owner of the late Paradise Neon encouraged him to start his own business. "I didn't know to be afraid," Nate told me. At 21, he embarked a tenacious journey of running his own neon sign business with 6 employees. Then in 1999, China took over the beer sign business, putting the majority of companies out of business within 30 days. Nate shut his operation down, got married, had kids and operated as a stay at home dad. In 2008, a friend who owned a glass shop encouraged him to get back into the business. Nate was hesitant; he didn't want to make signs, but art. Sure enough, he embraced his past abject failure and went back to creating art. If you're ever in Raleigh, you'll find it. You'll see his at as you drink beer at Trophy Brewing Co or searching for eclectic eats downtown.
I hated it too. I didn't like coffee until my mother added cream, sugar and water (she didn't reveal the safety ingredient to me until later). For Sydney, when her father introduced sweetener to her coffee, it wasn't delightful to her. Even though her favorite view was waking up in the morning to see her Nana, donned in big glasses, sipping coffee from a duck mug while reading the newspaper, coffee wasn't for her. Surprisingly, almost two decades later, coffee is a big part of her life. "It's where relationships happen. I've had the best and worst conversations over coffee," Sydney shared with me. She told me about a blog she read in high school that changed her perspective on brews. The journal was called "Coffee and the World" and contained an interesting perspective about coffee. The author of the blog compared black coffee to the pureness of Jesus and His desire for authentic relationships. They inferred further that adding flavoring to coffee was like adding unfulfilling things to life; introducing additives was like dimming a beautiful life. It stated that life (and coffee) were best enjoyed in it's purest form--the way God had designed it. That perspective changed Sydney, forever. Not only did she fall in love with coffee, but also a simple and meaningful lifestyle rich in relationship. "I want a small house, the person i love, a ten-speed bike to ride around on and coffee every morning. I want to experience different cultures, take photos and hear stories of the people around me. I don't want money to drive my life. I'd rather grow in my faith and to love people well."
Sometimes you meet people who inspire you to be creative with your free time. For me, the person that comes to mind is Paulie. He's a man of genuinely wild ideas and creative pursuits. What's refreshing about him is his big heart to include others in creating and executing those ideas. Regardless of what it is, he finds joy in people coming together to learn or do something different. "I invite people to everything, even if they don't know each other. I value the different perspectives." Much of that stems from how he grew up. During our get-together, he shared a holiday story from his childhood. It was about a snowy Christmas when his family hosted loved ones at a massive dinner. The food to consumer ratio was so large that pots of lasagna and eggplant parmesan had to be chilled under the snow on their back patio! If you're invited to Paulie's current home for dinner, you can expect a similar experience. Through his open door, you'll be welcomed with an immense amount of food, intentionality and most likely a wild adventure.
Last week, I had the pleasure of having coffee with A.J. at BREW coffee bar. During our meeting, he shared with me a story about a memorable dinner party with neighbors that took place years ago. A friend had brought single-origin coffee to the party and A.J. was convinced it couldn't beat his International Delight. If it wasn't for his friend suggesting A.J. give it a shot, Raleigh may not have BREW. He was shocked. Entranced by the flavor of the brew, A.J. was immediately obsessed with good coffee. His story followed with him and his best friend Mike purchasing wholesale coffee from around the Triangle. They couldn't consume it all--so they gave extra bags to friends. The fascination caught many and sure enough, they launched a coffee delivery service called Raleigh Coffee Club. Palates matured across RDU. A.J. formed relationships with great coffee people like roasters, shop owners, baristas and dwellers. Unfortunately, the excitement of pulling up in front of offices with bags of coffee and educational moments wasn't sustainable. So, they shutdown the operation.
But like any great movie, where all good things seem lost, A.J. and Mike had a better idea. Together, they kickstarted the idea of BREW, a coffee bar about embracing diverse relationships and excellent service. Nestled in the eclectic Seaboard Station of Downtown Raleigh, A.J. channels values he learned as a kid working in his family's restaurant. A.J. and Mike hope to communicate the message that people are valued at BREW. Of course I had to inquire about his brew of choice. His response was a naturally processed Ethiopian pour over. Black. He explained to me, "It's super volatile, hard to brew well, but worth it. Like many feats in life, it creates memories."
To Bryant, the concept of serving is the very frame of who he is. You can feel it. But, surprisingly, that aura wasn't always one produced from selflessness. As a teenager, Bryant worked 9 hour days, 6 days a week on his family car lot for 3 years. "I wasn't even thinking of it as a sacrifice as a 14 year old kid. Serving was who I was. Serving each person who came on the lot." Though his giving persona awoke in front of customers, it grew in a place of darkness. It festered in a place of bitterness. "No kid wanted to be out selling cars," he said to me. He was chained to selfishness till after 2 years the Lord "brought him to his knees." He stopped serving people for himself and started giving for their own sake. It was a decision that brought him back to his core purpose even when excelling in professional golf and music. So, he dropped out of his pursuits and championed the mission of helping people find homes.
But, there was a bit of a shift in his narrative. It began 4 years ago with Bryant driving a friend to a bus stop at 3:50 am. After going 36 hours without sleep, working relentlessly, an absent bus was not a pleasant surprise. "At 7:06 am, I beat the steering wheel on the way home in frustration because I arrogantly believed that my body simply doesn’t sleep when the sun is up. I wouldn’t be able to sleep before meeting my clients that morning." Suddenly, Bryant fell asleep behind the wheel. At 45 mph, he entered into a rear-end collision with a stopped car. After arriving home and laying in bed in silence, he realized one of life's greatest lessons. He was not perfect. Even with a servant's heart, man can not be everything to everyone. How often do we try to meet such a divine purpose? The unfortunate turn of events elevated a capstone in his life. "For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong." Before our hand is stretched out, it is our heart that is observed. Is it built on weak pride or strong humility? It's a bizarre concept. But, Bryant and I have realized that sometimes saying "no" allows us to give a stronger "yes" to a greater purpose.
Carlos is one of those guys who walks by you in a room, smiles and says hello with a big smile. Every day, without hesitation. It's a genuine grin---one that makes you stop and think, "I needed that." After trying to climb the corporate ladder, a heart attack and SEVEN bypasses, Carlos made his life about something greater. Something greater than himself. He made it about helping people "get it". He would say, "I don't want to be a salesperson. I don't mind competition. I don't have to be right all the time or have the idea. If Chris isn't successful, then I screwed up, man. I don't want to let anyone down." A week before our interview, he had invited a new friend to a Super Bowl party at a brewery Carlos and kin beloved. The friend came and seemed to enjoy himself. Sadly, the next day he took his life. This left Carlos troubled in reflection on the principle---that opinions don't impact the world, actions do. What more could it have took?
I'm reminded of being a kid in 5th grade listening to a D.A.R.E. representative share a story. She talked to us about how there was once a young boy in school emptying his locker. No one spoke to him as they passed by. "Now imagine you're walking down the hall and you see him. You actually decide to say hello to him." Little did we know, that hello meant his world. The story continued that that young boy was planning to venture into the woods to take his life. But...your hello encouraged him to give another day a chance. Friends, let's explore even further than a simple, "hello." Though it holds so much value...let's buy someone a drink. Let's ask them who they are and how they came to be. You will be surprised. And so will they.