Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

No Straight Lines

Written by: on May 15, 2015

No Straight Lines

One of the things that has always fascinated me is the diversity of vocations people find themselves in. Where a person has been is important information. Where I have lived, people I have met, and places I have experienced all have bearing on who I am and on who others think I am. With the inception of certain programs and apps, it is now easy to track where one has been. And, if you are a Facebook fan, you can even tell your friends all the places you have been, whom you were with, and even post pictures from your journeys – all in one place. Some people post everywhere they have been and everything they have done; others tend to be less self-revealing. One is not better than the other; they are just different styles. So what “social geographies” have importance to me? Which geographies have most shaped me into the person I am today, particularly in my vocation?

In his text Social Geographies: Space and Society, author Gill Valentine says that this field of study can best be summed up as follows: “the study of social relations and the spatial structures that underpin those relations.”[1] Our bodies (and the bodies we meet along the way) shape who we are. The homes we live in (or don’t live in) also shape who we are. Communities and institutions also shape us, as do the urban or rural environments we find ourselves in. And, the nations, societies, cultures, and sub-cultures in which we live definitely shape who we are and who we become over time. The meanings we give to all of these places and experiences have great influence on the people we are. Yes, our nurture does make a difference. No matter who we are genetically, a large percentage of who we are is also based on where we find ourselves in this world. That is a large part of what this book is about. But are we “fated” to these spaces, or can we imagine ourselves into other spaces, new spaces? This question is an important, both as a student of social science and as a philosopher/theologian. Just how do social geographies fit with social imaginaries? A bottom-line question then becomes: Are we stuck or are we free? A related question becomes: Am I a victim of my environment, or can I escape from this predetermination?

I am a Baby Boomer who was born in the 50’s in East Los Angeles, California, to a lower middle-class family of third-generation Russian Molokans. I was a minority in a predominately Hispanic community. My parents were both blue-collar workers who both worked for Montebello School District. Conversations around our dinner table often revolved around the evil “certified employees” in the district. I grew up with a bias against the wealthy and the educated. “We” were we; “they” were they. “Us” and “them” conversations flourished around our table. And as we kids became older, the all-important question of higher education became a hot topic. Should we kids go to college? And if so, what should we study? What should we become? Do we stay with the status quo or do we become “the other”? Ironically, my two siblings and I became the “other.” Two of us became teachers (certified); one became a school secretary (classified). All of us made our livings from educational organizations. What caused these circumstances? Was it chance or was it divine providence? How much was intentional and how much was unintentional? I did not dream of becoming a teacher or a leader. Actually, I dreamed of becoming an astronaut or a stand-up comedian. So how did this unfold? How did I end up in higher education leadership? It was definitely not a straight-line journey. Actually, the older I get the more I doubt if there are any straight lines, where a person goes seamlessly from Point A to Point B.

As I look at my life, I see several pieces of my journey leading to this place, some were positive influencers, others, were negative influencers. As I have mentioned in previous posts, my home was not the healthiest place. So, to escape the chaos, much of my childhood was spent at my best friend’s house. This was a Mexican family where education was highly valued, not because the parents were educated but because they had high expectations for their five children. By the way, three of them became doctors; the other two went into education. The Galindo home was a social geography that laid some deep, heart-felt values in me. I am grateful for this family till this day and even as I am writing this post, my heart rejoices for the opportunities I had in this wonderfully loving and accepting home.

The next major influencer on me was the public school system. School was an escape for me. It was an escape into new worlds of reading and imagination, but it was also a place of escaping the fighting and dysfunction of my family. I loved school and school loved me. As early as seventh grade, I was voted as a student leader and continued in student leadership every year of my public education. With the encouragement of teachers and advisors I became a good student and a respectable leader. I have good memories of this social geography and of the certified employees there who spoke into my life.

I began attending Sunday School by myself while in first grade. I would wait on the corner for the Baptist Church bus to come by. Eventually each Sunday, my best friend Ramon Galindo and I would ride the bus together. I met Jesus while in fourth grade under the teaching of Mr. Hansel who literally, “scared the hell out of us” one morning. I will never forget that day. I wept myself to sleep that night. I kept going to church until my high school years. The youth groups I was involved in really rubbed off on me, so much so that for the first 16 years of my working life I did so as a youth pastor. Those years were filled with much joy, many changed lives, and eventually, with a lot of disillusionment and discouragement. As much as I loved the Church, the church leadership I hooked up with turned out to be far from Christ-like. So again, another institution shaped me, both for good and for ill. These proved to be serendipitous events as I began to consider what I really wanted to do with my life.

As I type this post, I am reminded of the next social geography that helped shape the person I am today. You see, I have an appointment this afternoon with a therapist with whom I have had a monthly meeting for almost ten years now. I started seeing a therapist 34 years ago. It has become a regular part of my mental health regime. This person has become influential in my understanding of myself and of those around me. I see life more clearly because of this commitment. And although our book does not mention counseling particularly, I see a counseling office as a community that has greatly helped to shape the inner person I am today. Two quotes come to mind that connect with this social geography. The first is by Father John Powell, a wonderful author and psychologist. Powell says, “We are shaped by the words people say…and by the words they refuse to say.” Sometimes, I have learned, we have to find someone to say the words to us that we have needed to hear since those who should have spoken remained silent. Sometimes a counselor can teach us to say the words to ourselves using healthy self-talk. This is a skill I have learned. The other quote is by Dr. John Ortmann, who said this, “Failure is not an event; it is the interpretation of an event.” If I have learned anything in the last 34 years, it is the fact that I am not a failure just because I have failed – and I have failed! Rather, failures are merely a part of my journey, the non-straight line journey that I have been on these past 59 years.

The last social geography I would like to point out is my time spent in other cultures, particularly in Egypt. What attracted me to the LGP program was the travel and global perspective that I hoped to gain while in the program. I have not been disappointed. But what caused me to have a love for other cultures, other perspectives, and other belief systems in the first place? I have been privileged to do quite a bit of international travel, primarily to Africa. I lived in Egypt for a couple of years while doing my master’s internship. That was one of the toughest stretches of my life. While there, I struggled with a new language, I struggled with depression, and I struggled with worldview understanding. But I came away different, shaped into a different form. My mind and by spirit were stretched. And I have never been the same since. I tell my students now that if they ever have an opportunity to do a portion of their studies cross-culturally to jump at the opportunity, and those who have done this always come back to thank me for the suggestion.

This post was very personal, more personal than I had intended to be. But I am OK with that. We all have a story; this is part of mine, such as it is. I would love to know your story as well and look forward to Hong Kong where we can all sit down around cups of tea sharing our stories…and celebrating Deve’s birthday together.

What social geographies have shaped you? Let’s sit and talk about that soon.

[1] Social Geographies: Space and Society, Gill Valentine (Harlow, England: Prentice Hall, 2001) 1.

About the Author

Bill Dobrenen

I am a husband, father, and educator. I love my wife, my two amazing children, and my students. My dissertation research is on the importance of Traditional Native-American Tribal Leadership Practices. Being in the LGP program is a gift from God for me during this season of my life. I look forward to another great year with my LGP4 cohort.

9 responses to “No Straight Lines”

  1. Liz Linssen says:

    Dear Bill
    Your post is such a beautiful read. Thank you so much for sharing your personal journey, how people and communities have shaped your life. It’s an inspiration to read!
    Isn’t it wonderful how, despite our broken experiences, people and situations come into our lives to bring much needed healing. I too experienced this. Thank God for healing and peace into these spaces. God bless you Bill.

    • Liz,

      Thank you for your kind words. Sometimes I think I share too much about my own story and I worry about that. However, this week’s post was for me a personal healing journey of thinking back on just what it was that has shaped my life. I think this is an important exercise for all of us to do. It shows God’s hand in our lives, which is the most important of all social geographies.

  2. John Woodward says:

    Bill, what a wonderful post! It was fantastic to learn your history – the long and winding road to “the Bill” we know today! Because of the multifaceted and all inclusive nature of this book, my mind went in so many directions – including thinking about the Social Geography of the kids on the Reservations I have visited! What these kids grow up with is amazingly sad – their poor homes and trashed covered communities. It does make one question how their environment plays into the direction of their lives? It seems we are back again to the nature/nurture question. But, it does seem on some level that the attitudes and direction of the people (here and in so many other cultures) is reflected in their “space” and how they develop their community and their worlds. It does make one think. But, as your story suggests, because we are born into on geographic location doesn’t ever determine our entire future – as there are always those that move out and beyond. So, what then is it? Nature or nurture that is most important? My hope and prayer for the Lakota people is that God can bring redemption and hope in the midst of so much hopelessness…that is our hope as Christians and it keeps me going back!

    Thanks for your amazing story, Bill. Looking forward to hearing more in a few weeks!

    • John,

      The nurture/nature question will never be answered in this life. It is too big a question and is one that is beyond any of our pay grades to understand!

      Every life is different. Every journey is different. I don’t understand why some make it through and some don’t seem to, why are some poor and some aren’t, why some are “successful” and some are not. And how do we know how God measures success anyway? I am certain that he does not measure it as we do, especially as Western culture defines it. I think the Beatitudes are the place that really shows who are blessed and who are not, and that is definitely NOT a Western construct! I know for sure that we will all be surprised in the next life.

      I look forward to having many good conversations like this one on our upcoming road trip. Can’t believe it is only a couple weeks away!

  3. rhbaker275 says:

    Thank you … What a great story and you tell beautifully. I have come to really appreciate that both in your post and in conversations we have had. I also look forward to the opportunities in Hong Cong.

    It is amazing how we can reflect on how place and space shapes and forms us – always it is a social setting. You commented elsewhere that this book was a difficult read and particularly the application of social geographies concepts. Your personal application, in my opinion, is outstanding; you have grasped the significance of space in your life. It is amazing how we can look over a span of years and thank God for the things that shaped us.

    Blessing, Brother; continued grace and peace in all the spaces (and wow! the places) in your life.

    • Ron,

      Thanks for your kind words here.

      Yes, this was a bit of a tough read for me. So I launched into a personal story. I hope that was an OK thing to do. I do believe that so much of what we experience connects with so many parts of who we are and of who we become as human beings and as Christians. We don’t always see the connections, but it is cool when we do. This week’s post was quite healing for me, so I am glad I wrote what I did.

      Many good talks await us in Hong Kong. Looking forward to that!

  4. Michael Badriaki says:

    Bill great work and touching post here! Thank you for again putting social geography in personal perspective in such beautiful way.
    Thank you for giving a reader like me the opportunity to glean from your 59 years.

    Loved the post!

    • Michael,

      Thanks for your always affirming words. I have so much to learn. This week’s post for me was very helpful, as I just told Ron. I was a little worried about it since it was so personal. Sometimes we don’t know what is on the inside until we get it out in writing. I hope that is true for our dissertations! God knows that I need all the help I could get.

  5. Bill, thank you for taking us on your journey. It is so true we never want to be stuck simply due to our geographical or social current locations. The rise out of your childhood to you adulthood success is proof that people can overcome difficult circumstances. We are not stuck. Especially for the Christian who puts his hope in Christ and hears truly life-giving words spoken to the very depths of one soul always calling him up higher and into new realities. I love the quote that you gave from Dr. John Ortmann. I have heard similar words from people like John Maxwell and such. I have to constantly overcome the negative words that my alcoholic abusive stepfather said into my character. I definitely escape the cycle of alcoholism as Christ called me into his space and I welcomed him into mine. Blessings to you Bill we will see you in Hong Kong.

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