BLOOMINGTON — One person willing to take a risk and lead — one who sees change as an opportunity rather than a threat — can make a positive difference, a journalist and author told a gathering Wednesday at Illinois Wesleyan University.
Warren St. John, keynote speaker for the annual President’s Convocation, made comparisons between college freshmen and the people he wrote about in his book, “Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference.”
College freshmen, like the refugees and people of Clarkston, Ga., are going through “an extraordinary transition,” St. John said.
Starting in the 1980s, Clarkston, a community 13 miles outside of Atlanta, Ga., became a focal point for resettlement of refugees from many strife-ridden countries in Africa, Asia and Europe. The town shifted from predominantly native-born whites and blacks to one-third foreign-born.
There is a tendency to “run to the familiar,” St. John said — whether it is members of an immigrant soccer team grouping with people from their own country or college students looking for the table with fellow athletes or others with the same interests.
But those who take risks, get out of their comfort zones and find a common goal — like the soccer coach and others in “Outcasts United” — figure out how to get things done, he said.
“The people for whom all this change was threatening … just, basically, bailed on their community,” St. John said, while others realized “there is another way” and reached out and forged real relationships.
“They didn’t come out of ‘Kumbaya’ sessions or diversity workshops,” St. John said. “They came out of real world experience.”
His book tells the stories of those people who took risks. They include not only Coach Luma Mufleh, a Jordanian-born woman cut off by her wealthy family after she decided to stay in the United States, but also a “good ol’ boy” grocer whose store was teetering on the brink of failure and the refugee employee who told him how he could appeal to the growing refugee community.
They include members of the Clarkston Baptist Church who embraced the newcomers, though they lost some longtime members in the process, and renamed their building the Clarkston International Bible Church.
St. John’s book was selected for the summer reading program for incoming IWU freshmen and has been the topic of special discussion groups. St. John also had a question-and-answer session with students and others while on campus.
IWU President Richard Wilson said the book was selected because it provided a context for discussion of important issues for the university, such as social justice, immigrations policy, diversity and leadership.
St. John related the story of a 15-year-old boy who told him, “If a stranger had walked into my village in Sudan, everyone would come out and ask questions,” offering food and assistance, but in Atlanta, “no one ever asked him where he was from.”
So St. John encouraged Wesleyan students “in your walks around campus” to “keep an eye out” for people like that 15-year-old boy and “reach out to them and ask them where they’re from and where they’re going.”