Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The making of an innocently generous philanthropist

The story of John Perkins is dispiriting. The story of Greg Mortenson, a mountaineering adventurer turned builder of schools in remote valleys of Pakistan and Afghanistan, is inspiring. One young American's resentments made him easily manipulable by people who wanted to exploit his talents for their profits; the other fellow turned an accident in the mountains into a respectful passion for helping people, while apparently retaining his modesty and ability to meet others with curiosity and authenticity.

Since Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time by Mortenson and David Oliver Relin has been a huge best seller, I don't feel the need to retell much of its story. Suffice to say , since 1996, under the nonprofit umbrella of the Central Asia Institute, Mortenson has been responsible for the building of 90 schools that provide education to over 34,000 children, including 24,000 girls.

Mortenson clearly got off to a good start for a person who would end up working with people from other cultures. He spent much of his boyhood in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania where his father worked to establish a hospital and his mother a school. In this book, Mortenson describes his father's pride that the institutions would soon be run by Tanzanians.

In 1993, having spontaneously promised the Pakistani villagers who took him in after a failed climb of K2 that he'd return and build a school, Mortenson lived as a San Francisco Bay Area drifter,working shifts as an ER nurse, living in his Buick on climbing weekends, and trying to learn how to raise money. He didn't have a clue how he was going to come up with the $12000 he needed. The story of his visiting a copy shop, getting upgraded from hunt and peck manual typing to a computer, and fruitlessly mailing off 580 begging letters should resonate with anyone who has ever tried to scrounge up the cash for a project she truly believes in. And, improbably, he did find a mountaineering benefactor who came up with the money.

And so he managed to return to Pakistan and keep his promise -- and more. And along he way, Mortenson learned from the recipients of his gift essential truths about how to live. Here's the incident that gave his book its title:

When the porcelain bowls of scalding butter tea steamed in their hands, Haji Ali spoke. "If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways," Haji Ali said, blowing on his bowl. "The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die," he said, laying his hand warmly on Mortenson's own. "Doctor Greg, you must make time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time."

"That day Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I've ever learned in my life," Mortenson says. "We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly. We're the country of thrity-minute power lunches and two-minute football drills. Our leaders thought their 'shock and awe' campaign could end the war in Iraq before it even started. Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could even hope to teach them."

Three Cups of Tea reminded me over and over of Jesus' injunction that those who would live in the Good need the mind and heart of a child. (Luke 18:17) For whatever reason, Greg Mortenson seems to have been able to bring a pure heart to his friends in the Himalayas. More of us should be so fortunate.

1 comment:

Darlene said...

I had completely forgotten about his mission until I read this post. Thank you for reminding me of a truly giving man.

He has done more to enhance America's image than all the Ambassadors put together. Oh that we had more people like him.

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