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Bringing It Back To Communities

Updated: Mar 28, 2022

By CJ Runyon, President, Walu International

There are many reasons I love Community Driven Development, but it is mostly based on my love of communities and my belief they are capable of leading their development while getting assistance from local organizations and resources.

I look forward to sharing my experiences, good and embarrassing, with you to explain why Community Driven Development is necessary in times of normalcy and after a calamity.

Like with any story, I will start at the beginning to explain how and why I have dedicated 28 years to working with communities locally and internationally.

When I was 8 years old, I learned about the USSR. I was horrified by the controlling government and fascinated by the conviction of people who chose to endure persecution for their beliefs, faith, ideas and education. I asked my parents a lot of questions and begged them to send me to Russia so I could talk with the government to tell them they were “being rude”. This to me was the remedy. They had no idea they were “being rude” and someone needed to explain that to them.

Despite my pleas, my parents did not send me to Russia, but I ended up going when I was 20 for 4 weeks. When I came back to the states, I called my parents and told them I was going back in 5 months for two years to work with an international organization. My mom sighed and said, “I knew this would happen”. In January 1994, I boarded a plane for 3 months of training and then headed to Novosibirsk, Russia to fulfill my lifelong dream.

I chose to work in Siberia. Living in Siberia is another story. I was able to work with a church that had endured persecution underneath communism. In my eyes, they were rebels who stood up for their beliefs despite the persecution that would follow. I wanted to know them.

When I met Pastor E, he had an important request. He was uncomfortable asking it because he was always met with a Western argument. His request was that when I was at the church, I refrain from wearing makeup and wear a dress. “No problem” I said and immediately followed up with, “Since I will be living near members of the congregation, I’ll do this every day”. The look on his face! He told me that wasn’t necessary, and I explained it was because my intention was to learn, not cause division within his congregation.

That began a wonderful friendship. Behind closed doors, he and I had discussions regarding his belief system, but his congregation never knew my thoughts. I traveled with them, ate with them, participated in weddings, sang in their services, huddled with them as we walked in minus 30 degrees weather and did my best to speak their language.

Compared to other foreigners, I wasn’t doing anything spectacular. I was merely providing an English class and mentoring youth per their request. I sometimes wondered if they thought I was insufficient because I wasn’t offering them big programs like other foreigners were.

A foreign man my organization was affiliated with, who had done impressive things in the area, was coming for a visit. I thought it would be cool if he met with E so I arranged a dinner with both couples.

The day of the dinner, I felt like a failure. I couldn’t shake the belief that I was inadequate. My feelings were only made worse as I prepared a pathetic meal. It was nothing compared to the Russian hospitality that had been bestowed on me.

When everyone arrived, I felt good that E could have a fulfilling conversation with an accomplished man. While we were eating my poor excuse for soup, E looked at the man and said, “You’ve been doing it all wrong”. The man understandably looked shocked. E explained, “You came in with your big programs and left. You did not get to know us. We didn’t get a sense you cared about us.” Then he said, “You need to learn from Cyntia” (how they pronounced Cynthia). My heart stopped and I didn’t breath. “What in the world could he learn from me?” He went on, “She has gotten to know us. She spends time with us. She works with our children and youth. She has traveled with us. She has shown us that she loves us and we love her. She is one of us.”

The man’s ego was not wounded. He appreciated the lesson, which served as an example in humility for me. He even shared the conversation with colleagues.

That was my first lesson in Community Driven Development and I hold onto it tightly. I am happy to say the organization grew in their relationship with E and eventually assisted him and his congregation in opening a successful programs that benefitted their community. I wasn’t part of the program, but that is fine. I got the lesson I needed: Equipping and empowering a community is better than trying to change it.

Even though in 2003 I was a Director of Fire Cleanup for an area in San Diego County, I do not profess to know what is best for those in SLV who lost their homes. What I believe is by providing a Community Driven Development model and training, they can be equipped and empowered to find solutions that are best for them while coming alongside their community and local organizations that are ready to assist in their recovery.

CJ Runyon is President at Walu International. Walu is dedicated to using Community Driven Development training to equip & empower community voices to be collectively heard.

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