The Lessons of OUTCASTS UNITED by Warren St. John

Got the blues about life in America? Don't waste time. Read Outcasts United: A Refugee Town, An American Dream by New York Times reporter Warren St. John as soon as you can.

St. John's uplifting story is about a small town in Georgia, an influx of refugees from war-torn countries, boys, and the sport of soccer. But the book also sheds light on immediate demographic and cultural forces that are pulling and shaping our society -- forces that must be understood if we are to serve the next generation well.

While the author steers clear of pontificating, I couldn't help making the didactical leap as I devoured the book on a nonstop flight from Boston to SFO. What do the Fugees football team, the town of Clarkston, and Coach Luma Mufleh teach the rest of us about serving young people in America's fast-changing communities?

1. Lesson from the Fugees: Sports can change lives.

Fugee players fled here from different countries, worship in different ways, speak a wide variety of languages, and are racially diverse, but end up bonding like family. Why? The answer's easy to see in the book -- because they all want to win.

Kofi Annan, as Secretary-General of the United Nations, launched the Year of Sports in 2005, reminding us that "when young people participate in sports or have access to physical education, they can experience real exhilaration even as they learn the ideals of teamwork and tolerance."

The Fugees Family website describes how exploiting the strong internal motivation that comes with sport can help kids at risk:
Soccer draws these players together. Before they join the Fugees Family, they already love the game. It's the most popular sport in the world, and the fastest-growing youth sport in the country. On the field, the players experience the freedom, release, power, and sense of achievement that they do not experience in school. Soccer builds their confidence, and gives them the lift, the spirit, to persevere in their academics - long, slow work that does bring rewards, but not instantly. Their enthusiasm for the game is what attracts the kids' participation, and, once involved, they are impelled to excel not only on the field but off it.
How might we use the universal competitive drive and love of sport to shatter barriers and motivate success?

2. Lesson from Clarkston: Commandeer change instead of resisting it.

One of the most revelatory sections of the book was chapter 19, titled "Getting Over It." Here St. John features a few people and groups who rose to the challenge of Clarkston's demographic change by innovating -- a church, a grocery store called Thriftown, and the police force. I especially enjoyed the ecclesiastical example, since religious institutions are so often portrayed in our culture as barriers to change:
As refugees moved to Clarkson in the 1990s, many members of the church's white congregation became so uncomfortable with their changing surroundings that they decided to move away ... Membership in the church plummeted from around seven hundred to just over a hundred ... A group of church elders met to discuss the congregation's future. They looked to the Bible for guidance, and read a passage in which Jesus described heaven as a place for people of all nations ... [As a result] the Clarkston Baptist Church renamed itself after 125 years: it's now the Clarkston International Bible Church. On Sundays, separate congregations of Liberians, Ethiopians, French-speaking West Africans, and Sudanese meet ... and a bigger, come-one, come-all service takes place in the main sanctuary in English ... Pews in the sanctuary, once nearly empty on Sunday mornings, are now near capacity, and membership has grown to over five hundred.
The Thriftown Grocery and the Clarkston police force were also willing to take risks for the right reasons in response to changes they couldn't control. Are we?

3. Lesson from Luma: Leave your bleeding heart at home.

Steven Roberts, in his Washington Post review of the book, notes that tender-hearted readers may not like Luma Mufleh's coaching style:
In truth, she can overdo the "tough" part of "tough love." I cringed when she banished Mandela Ziaty for insubordination, called her players "a pathetic excuse for a soccer team" and told them that they "deserved to lose."
But undoubtedly Luma's toughness brings out the best in these boys. She requires them to participate in after-school tutoring at least twice a week. If the boys miss tutoring, they miss playing in their game that week.

As I read the book, my (bleeding) heart went out to one boy after another, but one of my favorites had to be Kanue Biah. This fifteen-year-old dedicated player originally from Liberia was heartbroken after Coach canceled the under-15s' season due to the absences of his teammates -- one of her harshest decrees.

But Kanue didn't give up. The Fugees meant too much to him. He painstakingly organized his teammates to advocate for a second chance. He recruited new players and chased the old ones until he had enough players to form a new team. And somehow he convinced Coach to let them try out again.

After Luma agreed to reinstate the team, St. John writes:
Kanue dropped his head in relief. His team was alive. He had vetted the newcomers and let them know Coach's rules -- he'd read the contract to many of them himself -- and he was going to make sure everyone was there on Thursday afternoon, on time ... "I told her I appreciate her," Kanue said later. "I told her thanks, and that we were going to do everything to follow the rules and give her the respect she deserves."
What an exercise in advocacy and leadership -- skills this young man might not have learned without Luma's strong boundaries in place.

Despite my lesson-gleaning, Outcasts United isn't out to convey tips and morals for the good of society. It's replete with stories about boys who have endured much, a sport that they love, and the Coach they learn to trust and respect. And that's what makes it such a great read.

Note: Author Warren St. John will be visiting us on the Fire Escape for an exclusive follow-up interview, so stay tuned!