Over our long Thanksgiving weekend, when many of us ate too much pie and watched too much football, I found myself mulling over moments over the past year that made me go “Wha’?”
I call them Road-to-Damascus moments.
You know, like Paul in the New Testament. Chalk that up to my Southern Baptist, Sunday School upbringing. Those mornings in a classroom painted Easter egg green in downtown Charleston did pay off.
Anyway, a Road-to-Damascus moment is when you have some epiphany in an unlikely place and your view of the world, yourself and those around you corkscrews and you think, ‘Wha’? Whoa! What the hell ….”
I betcha we all have had those moments. I know I have. But this year, the one I come back to time and again is me sitting on a stool in a wood-paneled den listening to a teenager talk about life after high school.
But it wasn’t the teenager who caused me to go “Wha’?” No, it was the daughter of Deborah and Bobby Lee Williamson.
Or really the Rev. Andria Williamson.
I call her MDiv.
Andria is the manager of chapel programs at High Point University, my new professional playground. Andria works with students on all things God-related, and that includes leading them on pilgrimages that have had them feeding folks at a local homeless shelter and taking communion at the top of a mountain in western North Carolina.
The pic above comes from one of those pilgrimages. It was last year when Andria had a handful of HPU students turn their faith into action in High Point, Greensboro and Winston-Salem, the three cities that surround HPU.
Andria is the one with the big eyes.
This pic to the left comes from their time on a bus in October. They were on their way to Asheville, N.C., to do God stuff, and Andria is in the lower left-hand corner – smiling. I see that smile often on campus.
Andria is 27, a local girl with deep local roots. Her mom works at N.C. A&T; her dad worked for four decades at Lorillard Tobacco, the century-old company that manufactured Newport cigarettes and perfumed east Greensboro with the sweet scent of the Old South.
Lorillard is now a memory – it’s been bought by Reynolds American – and Andria’s dad is a retired head fixer and a descendent from a sharecropping farm in Rockingham County.
Andria knows that history. I bet she can sing about it. And man, she can sing. She’s got this vocal richness that can make anyone go mum with amazement. Matter of fact, she’s got a degree in music education from UNC-Greensboro as well as a degree in communication studies.
But she felt beckoned to a pulpit rather than a classroom. She went on to Wake Forest University and obtained a master’s degree in divinity.
That’s why I call her MDiv.
Now, Andria does know a thing – or two – about the importance of listening. She learned that in her chaplain training. So, back in May, she asked if she could join me for one of my interviews. She wanted to see how I ask questions.
That’s how it began.
In my journalism career, I’ve spent 30 years asking people questions about all sorts of things under every circumstance imaginable. So, I told Andria sure. Why not, right? Figured it would be fun.
And yet … but I’ll get to that.
Andria joined me for one of my freelance gigs. This one was with Guilford County Schools, North Carolina’s third largest school system with at least 74,000 students and more than 120 schools.
Right before the county’s fleet of graduation ceremonies, I profile for the GCS website a dozen or so graduating seniors who have a story to tell.
And of course, this one did.
Jacob McPhaul was graduating from the Middle College at N.C. A&T. He wanted to be a chef, and he had been accepted to the acclaimed culinary school an hour south of us. Jacob was going to Johnson & Wales University and had received at least $52,000 in scholarships.
Or so I thought.
I interviewed him in his family’s wood-paneled den, and from my perch at the stool, I heard how his future had changed in the past month. He had decided to join the Navy to help pay for school. Johnson & Wales can be waaaay expensive , and Jacob wanted to take the financial burden off his family.
He took the oath to join the Navy the very day he graduated from high school.
For me, that was his story. It told me much about his determination, drive and love of family. You’ll find his story here.
But there was another aspect of his story that I ditched after my first draft. The reason: It took his story down what I call a “blind alley” and had already been covered by another media outlet.
My journalism instincts told me to dig into something new and unexpected. Still, that aspect of Jacob’s story was some kind of powerful.
One night a year ago, Jacob got robbed steps from his front door. A man stuck a gun in his face and threatened to kill him for his iPhone. Jacob gave it to him and ran inside his house shaking.
His story made the local news. It’s here.
I asked Jacob if he had moved on from that scare. He said yes; his face said no. But I didn’t see his face. Head down, I was scribbling something on my notepad.
But Andria saw his face. Jacob’s expression changed, like a shadow passing quickly across his face. Andria leaned in and listened, not saying a word.
Here’s the scene: Andria sat on my left, a few feet away. Jacob sat in a chair in front of us, near his mother and stepdad. I’d ask a question, Jacob would answer, and Andria would listen and write something on her legal pad propped in her lap.
Andria and I did that for two hours. During my questions, she’d write something down, look up and listen. Afterward, I turned to Andria and said something like, “Your turn.”
That’s when she read what she had drafted — right there beside me.
And so it was pressed upon your heart to go, “to journey, to a land that I will show you…” (Gen 12)
For some reason, on the journey of maturity, and in your transitioning from a boy to a man you knew you wanted to go there. You knew this path was for you.
Were you looking to find something on this path?
Would it really matter?
On the way, you came face to face with confidence, humility, focus, clarity, drive, wisdom, motivation. But, what do you do? Where do you start, and even move forward?
And then I heard a voice saying, “Don’t worry. You are covered. I have favor on you and your life.” As you continue you meet, time and time again, the heart of a servant.
You know, there’s something sacred that happens, a connection that is made when you look a person in the eye. Whether you speak, let it speak, let your life speak. In that moment, you have opportunities to share your passion, what’s behind your eyes, what’s in your spirit.
In the moments to come, will you listen?
Will your respond?
Will you give attention to the sacred?
Will you share your spirit? (not to be taken lightly)
Here’s something to think about…what does it mean to be a chef?
What really happens in the preparation of food? What is food–literally and symbolically? What do you really put into it? Is it only you? What is poured out from it? What is being shared with others from it and because of it?….
And then there’s this darkness…eyes black, a hole, home, awareness of darkness, confusion, sleep, death, awake.
Have you moved on? From what? Are you sure?
What else is there? What do you want to ask me? Do you want to know more?
What can I carry?
What can I heal?
Maybe you recognize these questions. I can assure you that a healing is already taking place in you, Jacob, and you can help with that, too.
Wanna know how? Sit at the healer’s feet.
Knocking will open up many doors.
Remember, you can’t fight greatness.
And then there was this dream. A dream….
(be patient with this gap. It knows you’re watching, waiting and listening.)
To touch something is to get to know it, covering every inch…
“Always remember, you are covered, you have favor.”
I say to you…
“Live in me. I live in you.” (John 15)
When you are giving, I am also giving to you. I restore you, and waste nothing.
“And so I ask you, do you love me more than these? Feed my sheep. Do you love me? Take care of my sheep. Do you love me? Feed my sheep.” (John 21)
I remember the look on Jacob’s face when she read that.
He was wide-eyed and mute. He had been talking for a good two hours — a gregarious teenager, he is — and after Andria read what she pulled from our conversation, he just went silent in his own house.
Andria had pulled bits and pieces from our conversation – about him having favor, about how you can’t fight greatness, about what he remembered of the robber steps from his front door (“eyes black”) – and she came up with what you see above.
And she did it right there on the spot.
In my three decades as a journalist, I had never seen or heard anything like it.
From what I remember, the conversation after what she read went something like this.
Jacob: “Wow. You got me. But how did you get THAT?”
Andria: “I was listening for something deeper.”
Months later, I asked Andria about all that.
“You were looking for the facts and specific details from the perspective of a journalist, but I was listening for something different,” she tells me.”I was listening to what he said and how he said it. I was looking for those micro-expressions…”
“You know, it’s when people use certain phrases over and over again, or when they say a quick phrase as they’re walking out the door or out of a conversation, they’re putting the bait out in front of you and so many times are they waiting for you to come closer.
“It’s like when you asked Jacob about when he was robbed, and you asked if he had moved on. He said yes, but his facial expression didn’t say that. It changed. I could tell it was still there. (Andria pats her heart).”
Andria goes on about how we all build walls to protect ourselves from getting hurt. If we listen well and become empathetic, Andria says, we can help others and ourselves open up and remove some of those bricks that not only block us but block them as well.
Andria calls herself a “Enneagram Heart Type Number 3.” I sure don’t know what that is. So, I asked. She answered.
She also talked about imagination.
Yes, she says, imagination.
“It’s a sacred space,” she tells me.”When I go there, I know the spirit of God is present, I become a vessel, and when that happens, I know I’m in the moment.It’s cool.”
A woman half my age taught me something I didn’t know about something I thought I knew. That is, the ability to listen. And it happened on a stool in Jacob McPhaul’s wood-paneled den.
A week or so after I interviewed Jacob, I got a call from Jacob’s mom. She wanted me to get in touch with Andria. Seems Jacob’s mom couldn’t read Andria’s handwriting, and Jacob’s mom wanted to send what Andria wrote to all of their extended family.
It all shows me – should show all of us — the power of perception and what listening well can do.
It also brings to mind the book HPU freshmen had to read this fall — “We Need To Talk: How To Have Conversations That Matter” by NPR host Celeste Headlee.
Headlee’s book became what HPU calls the Common Read, and “We Need To Talk” sprang from a TED Talk she gave in May 2015. Since then, her 12-minute talk has received more than 13 million views.
I found her book fascinating, full of research and neuroscience facts about how what we have in our hands – iPhones and cell phones, mainly — have turned us into Twitter brains where we can’t concentrate on anything over 140 characters.
When school started this year at HPU, I talked to a room full of freshman about the book. They went deep into it – deeper than any class of freshman I’ve talked to in the past three years about the Common Read.
With the freshmen crew I had to a few months back, they all talked about how their generation doesn’t listen well and mentioned specifics about how it had affected their own lives.
That was a Road-to-Damascus moment, too.
With Thanksgiving behind me and the howl of Christmas marketing in front, Headlee’s book still resonates with me. Probably always will. It’s full of nuggets.
Like this from Dr. Ralph Nichols, known as the Father in the Field of Listening.
“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”
And this from novelist Salman Rushdie.
“I think writers have to be good listeners. One of the things you have to be able to do as a writer is hear what people are really saying and be able to represent that. So, yes, listening is great magic.”
And finally, this from Celeste Headlee.
“Conversations are precious because they require you to share time and focus equally with someone else instead of indulging your own thoughts.
“In doing so, you follow the natural flow of human interaction and allow yourself to be led into new, unfamiliar territory. You already know what’s inside your own head; open yourself to the surprise and discovery inherent in someone else’s perspective.
“It’s worth the effort.”
Yes, it is. Great magic, it is. The Rev. Andria Williamson taught me that.