Would you change?

In Change, Tracy Chapman sings:

If you knew that you would die today,
Saw the face of God and love,
Would you change?
Would you change?

Would you?

That question’s been stuck in my head for the last few weeks as I’ve been processing my recent trip to the Tibetan Region of China. Over here are copies of the letters I sent—journal entries, really—from the trip.

Briefly, though, I went back for three reasons. The first was to revisit Yushu. The region was devastated by an earthquake last April and in September I helped bring some temporary housing to ease the suffering of some folks made homeless. I wanted to, needed to, see how things were—this despite the frigid cold and lack of power.

The second reason was to participate in a process of helping local business people, local entrepreneurs get training in business planning fundamentals and to talk about the ways to use microfinance credit while also exploring opportunities like tourism. Tourism represents a huge percentage of the GDP in the Tibetan Region of China.

Lastly, I wanted to revisit an orphanage in a remote part of Sichuan. My hope is to help in a sustained way, to work to improve their lives.

Who knew, though, that I would see the face of God and love?

Here’s an excerpt from my Letters…this is about visiting the orphanage and sitting down with the monks who run it to see what more can be done:


Destination: Tagong

We left Kangding early for the three-hour drive to Tagong. With us in the van was Abu. Abu had attended the training session we did in Chengdu. He’s been a friend of the NGO’s with which I’m traveling for years. He’s the Shrine Keeper at the monastery in Tagong (which means, among his other duties, he sleeps in the temple when he’s on duty.)

I first met Abu in September when I visited the orphanage in Tagong.

The drive was easy; in so many ways, I feel like a part of me comes home when I visit Tagong and that morning, I was anxious to see the boys again.

Pulling out of Kangding, I could feel my breath ease. About an hour out of Kangding, you officially enter the Tibetan plateau. The air is thinner, colder and the skies clear and the Colorado blue sky blinds you.

In the car, I think of the John Muir quote: The mountains are calling me and I must go.

We stop to use the W/C (or the rural China equivalent of) and Abu runs out of the car, sick to his stomach. Bad omen? I hope not… he comes back smiling and laughing at his own misfortune; laughing at his own misfortune.

Pulling into Tagong we drive straight to Abu’s house. His mother lives across from the monastery and we’ll be staying with her, Amma. Amma’s yak yogurt is the best in all of Kham and I take mine with just a little bit of sugar and I snack on the fried breads she’s made especially for us.

We put our bags in the guest room and head out to see the boys.

In September, when I first met the boys their schoolroom was a tree-branch-and-plastic sheeting construction in the middle of a muddy yard. When I left, I arranged for a brand new, warm 45 sq meter tent to be put up and for gravel to be put down to keep the courtyard warm.

Shortly after that, the landlord took back the land. So, again, the monks and the kids have improvised a shelter. Like so many things in this land, frustrating.

Walking in, we interrupted the boys in their studies. After some hellos, and our shaking each hand of each boy. I stood in the middle of the room and handed out the presents, the New Year’s presents I told them. A hat, scarf, pair of gloves, and pair of socks for each boy. “Good quality,” Abu said in Tibetan adding, “and not crap.”

I also tossed out dozens of toys…basketballs, soccer balls, badminton sets, ping-pong balls, puzzles and games. Within minutes the boys were all over me to help them open the damn plastic packaging.

Within minutes, I stood and watched a group of six playing with a sort of dominoes set I’d given them and I wept.

God I wish I could take home each one of them.

Later we walked with Abu and some of his fellow monks to look at land they’d like to buy. For about $10,000 to $15,000 they could buy the land and build a school room and housing for 60 kids.

We walked back to the monastery and joined the boys for dinner. Our little group, plus five of the monks and 55 kids sat in a circle. They served me first, the boys fighting to be the one to bring me my bowl.

One gorgeous boy handed me the prized bowl of watery rice with a few slices of potato. As he handed it to me, a tiny bit slipped over the side. Another boy rushed up with a tissue and wiped (or, really, polished) the side of my bowl.

Everyone else received his or her portion and then the kenpo of this monastery said a blessing. We ate silently. Some of the boys licked their bowls after slurping the dinner. Others, especially the boys who’d worked in the kitchen making dinner, watched me closely. They smiled and laughed when I told them it was good. And it was good. Maybe the best meal I’ve ever had.

Later, the boys wanted to treat me so they took turns “massaging” my back…basically punching me. I can’t remember laughing so hard.

Later still, over tea and around the hot cast iron stove burning wood, coal, dung and anything else that would burn, we worked numbers on a blackboard. What would it take to build a school that could feed and house 60 boys, whether or not they want to become a monk? How many teachers? What subjects? What about medical visits and what about clothes? (Earlier the boys all showed off the brand new Tibetan style winter-coat robes my colleagues at this NGO paid to have made for the boys).

We left the discussion with nothing resolved except that I would help Abu make sense of his long term plans (help him think about a long term plan in the first place).

Still though numbers swirled. And of course my head spun…how could I help? How can I help them get to a sustainable place? A school isn’t just about the bricks; it’s about the long-term support.

One number, though, stands out in my head. And that night, back at

Abu’s mother’s place, as I finally settled onto the bed in my sleeping bag, with the indoor temperature reading 10 degrees, one number stuck with me: 1.5 Yuan per meal per kid. That is, 23 cents.

The premise with Tracy Chapman’s question is wrong.

The implicit notion is that, after looking into the face of love, you have a choice: change or not. I don’t think you have a choice. You change. The real question then is simply this: What do you do after you’ve changed?

You integrate, process and sort through.

One day, last April, I woke to read of an earthquake in a part of the world I had never given thought. Now, less than a year later, I’m trying to figure out ways to integrate all of my experiences, all of my various past lives, to come together to solve what seems to be a relatively easy problem: how to use good, smart economic development to create opportunities for people who need a hand.

Another excerpt:


In the morning we visit an ironworker. A recipient of a microfinance loan, he’s paid back the first loan and is looking for a larger second loan so he can expand to meet demand.

His welding mask is a children’s Halloween mask (best I can tell it’s Casper the Ghost) supplement by a pair of knock-off Ray Ban Aviators (the two are taped together with black electrical tape).

He’s already employing two people and he could expand to three more. His little shop fixes everything. They make iron decorations for atop buildings; the decorations are simples of the dharma and the Buddha’s teachings (like kneeling deer that would flank a wheel of the dharma, symbol of the Buddha’s first turning of the wheel–teaching of the dharma–in the deer park at Varanasi.)

There are parts of motorbikes and stoves everywhere in various stages of repair. He’ll get the loan (of I think $1000), which will enable him to not only hire and train more people but also expand his inventory of motorbike parks. This is the type of micro finance that works. The ironworker was orphaned as a boy and raised on the streets of the village. I can see someday he’ll be the village leader.

Over dinner earlier this week, as I showed him photos from my trip, and spoke about how overwhelming it can feel when I think of the enormity of the problems, a friend challenged me: You’ve done bigger things, he said.

You’ve challenged and poked and prodded and built bridges and made connections that have changed lives before. Do it again.

Would you change?

Would you change?

Now that you’ve changed, what will you do?

I turn the questions over and over, daily.

I see connections to work I’m doing here to the work I think I need to do there. Before leaving, my Buddhist teacher, told me: Don’t you know, Jerry, your karma is to combine business with the spiritual and to make spiritual undertakings more “business-like” more sustainable?”

One foot in each of two worlds.

A last excerpt:


Destination: Chengdu

We’ve a long ride ahead of us. I’m overwhelmed with ambivalence. I know getting to Chengdu is the first part of my making my way home (to what is clearly the NEW Land of Snows–NYC).

But so many images and feelings are tied to this land, this people. David Whyte has a poem called House of Belonging and in it he writes:

This is the bright home in

which I live,

this is where I ask my friends to come,

this is where I want to love

all the things it has taken me so long to learn to love.

This is the temple of my adult aloneness

and I belong to that aloneness as I belong to my life.

There is no house like the house of belonging.

I belong in NY. Of that I have no doubt. But it is a wondrous experience to travel to the other side of the world only to feel, again, as if I’ve entered another House of Belonging.

More photos from the trip here and videos below.

  • http://www.3pmobile.com/ Peter Cranstone

    Puts Silicon Valley and Wall Street behavior into perspective. We’ve become a nation and a people of material excesses. Consuming everything in the name of I don’t know what. Would you change? I don’t know, but I do know this, we “should” all change.

    • jerrycolonna

      Couldn’t agree more, Peter. In another, we should talk through what happens to us all, for us all, when you simply change and simply focus mostly on the other.

      • http://www.3pmobile.com/ Peter Cranstone

        You grow & get to see the face of God.

        I’m so tired of this financial material world that we live in. We’re constantly trying to defy the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (entropy increases until we go cold) and we judge ourselves and others on “immaterial things”.

        And yet there you sit, be waited upon with a simple bowl of food by someone who hopefully never have to hear about something called a term sheet.

        • jerrycolonna

          “And yet there you sit, be waited upon with a simple bowl of food by someone who hopefully never have to hear about something called a term sheet.” Indeed. And me feeling honored, lucky, to simply be there.

  • http://www.thelancasterfoodco.com Charlie Crystle

    I know exactly what you’re talking about, if not exactly what you’re feeling. And your friend is right–you’ve done bigger things, but perhaps not as important.

    One of the things I’ve struggled with is where to focus my efforts–internationally, where it seems I can have greater impact, or locally, where it seems I can have greater impact. That’s not a typo. And the issue wasn’t where to focus, it was whether to focus. And I chose scattershot across 4 countries and got the results you’d expect.

    The needs are not that dissimilar. The critical thing is to focus on a single project and persist until it carries itself.

    • jerrycolonna

      Great advice, Charlie. Thanks.

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  • Asef Anwarzai

    The problem is obvious. People in need do not have an economic voice. Our mind set is: spending vital resources on these guys will diminish “my pile of material things” or at least limit the amount I could have had. We all know this is a messed up way of thinking, but we also should not forget this is what has made us materially successful.

    I think the true error of the system lies in superficial complexes. Millions of dollars get spend each year on R&D to prevent man to go bold and woman from having wrinkles, rather than spending it on lessening the pain of people in need.

    We clearly do not have our priorities straight.

    • Asef Anwarzai

      P.S. Jerry – Thank you for making me think of this again!

      • jerrycolonna

        You’re welcome my friend.

  • Joel Goodman

    Thank you for sharing this. I am grateful that one does not have to see the face of death to experience God and love. But perhaps, our own, personal trips to Yushu instead. Change is all around – and I have experienced change from your Yushu experiences.

    • jerrycolonna

      There are Yushus–or Port-au-Prince’s–all around us as well. Thanks for sharing Joel.

  • jhohner

    Hi Jerry – this really moved me. You are a good man for doing this – I hope you can keep in touch with these boys and see them grow into great men. It seems to take so little money to really change people’s lives and give them an opportunity for a better life, but it takes an enormous amount of love and self awareness from an individual (or group of individuals) to act and roll up their sleeves to actually make it happen. Very well done.

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Jeff. I agree…such a small effort. I’m glad too you connected with
      the post and more important the work. My wish is that it inspires more folks
      to get engaged.
      On May 12, 2011 11:16 AM, “Disqus”

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  • Barbara Pantuso

    Jerry, I don’t know you, but reading this and your other journal entries from the trip make me want to know you. It’s been a while since I took a similar journey through Nepal and came back changed, wrestling with similar questions. Your posts prompted me to pull down my journal from that trip (handwritten, and even handpainted with illustrations, in the days before blogging). Thank you for prompting me to revisit that time, that place, and the experiences that forever changed me. And thank you for reminding me to keep perspective which is all too easy to lose in our NYC hustle bustle. You write beautifully.

    • jerrycolonna

      Hey Barbara…what a gift you’ve given me. So much of why I write is to trigger exactly this sort of response……so you’re welcome AND thank you. And thanks for the kind words about my writing.

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