Who is Leading the Parade?

Later this week, on August 5, the world will watch as the 31st Olympiad opens in Brazil. Athletes from 206 countries have poured into the city of Rio. They will compete in 306 events across 42 sports disciplines taking place in 37 venues. The Olympics have rarely been without some controversy, and this year is certainly no different as more than 100 Russian weightlifters were banned from the competition because of doping violations, the fear of the mosquito-borne Zika virus eliminated other competitors, and the conditions for some who came are apparently less than adequate. In spite of doping controversies and the shortcomings of hosts, the Olympics are still the nearest thing we have to a worldwide celebration of our shared lives on this planet. The Olympics still manage to serve as a source of hope and promise: the spectacular parade of athletes, the individual stories of grit and determination, the sheer beauty of a spectacular dive, a well-run race or the sticking of a near impossible landing on the gymnastics floor. This year I received my inspiration before the Olympics began. Last month, I read a story about the selection of 10 athletes to a history-making Olympic team -- all of them refugees who have fled their home countries because of war and fighting. The team will not march nor compete under a country’s flag nor celebrate to the strains of a country’s anthem. Instead, these ousted Olympians will compete as the Team of Refugee Olympic Athletes. For the first time ever, a group of unrelated athletes, bound only by their shared histories of loss and homelessness, will compete in the Olympics as a sanctioned team. They will compete under the Olympic flag, participate in the opening ceremonies, march at the head of the parade in front of the home team, Brazil, and have all the rights and privileges of the other teams. I have read the inspiring stories of these displaced swimmers and runners and judokas, and will be cheering for them later this week as they march into the arena together.

I am thankful for this decision of the International Olympic Committee. I appreciate the words of the IOC president, Thomas Bach, as he announced the Olympic Refugee Team. He said the team will raise awareness of just how important the issue of refugees is in our world today. He went on to say, “It is a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society. These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit.”

What a message indeed. Thank you, Mr. Bach.

I am also thankful to experts like John McKnight and Peter Block, who write about and teach a form of community development known as Asset Based Community Development. This approach looks at a neighborhood or community, and rather than focusing primarily on the needs of that community, looks at its assets or gifts. It is based on the assumption that everyone has gifts and talents and when invited and included, they all bring something to the table. Even people we might not consider worth inviting, worth listening to, or worth including.

Our neighborhood work at Connecting Caring Communities is grounded in this inclusive philosophy. Our friends and neighbors in the areas in which we are living and working are the experts when it comes to dreaming and creating solutions to the challenges their community is facing. We are there to listen and encourage and help when needed to mobilize people to action and perhaps connect them with outside resources. However, we always want our neighbors to not only be included, but to take the lead.

When I heard about the Olympic Refugee Team, the imagery that stood out to me the most was the picture of these 10 refugees marching into the opening ceremonies at the very front of the parade, even before the honored home team enters the arena in Brazil. They will not just be added on to the end as an afterthought, finally entering when everyone is growing tired of the celebration. They will lead the march, rather than the traditional, expected leaders, as a reminder that we all have a place on the team.