“Mike tells me you are a writer,” one of our fellow breakfast companions commented to me. The gentleman had an accent that I couldn’t define and made me strain my listening. He also wore a smile that looked to have more behind it than simple interest.
Superman and I were sitting on one side of a farmhouse-style table made from reclaimed wood by the owner of the historic Lynchburg B&B in which we were spending a glorious weekend away. The only other couple preparing to enjoy our Downton Abbey-like breakfast with us sat directly across the table.
I shifted in my antique cane woven, straight-backed chair, and smiled back wondering immediately where this was headed.
“Yes,” I answered through my smile. “I am.”
“I have a story to tell you,” he replied, as though it wouldn’t have mattered if I said no.
Then Thomas A. Johnson, furniture maker in Lynchburg, VA but clearly not from Lynchburg, began crafting his story with the detailed precision he builds his cabinets; beginning with—of all things—American history. He told of the landing at Jamestown in 1607; spoke of men with dreams and the will to work. Then he moved forward to 1620 when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, reminding us again of the dream, the perseverance, the heartache, and eventual progress. We met Washington leading the Continental Army through the American Revolution. We caught glimpses of runaway slaves and northern blacks fighting for our nation’s unity and—more importantly—freedom for their southern brethren.
With the melody and cadence of an African storyteller, and the precision of the master craftsman he is, Thomas led us through America’s terrible and great birth into a nation having the only government on earth “of the people, by the people, for the people.” I was a little confused as to why an African man was telling me a story of America’s history, but he told the story as though he were pulling its threads from his heart not his head. My confusion was overcome.
Thomas A. Johnson continued crafting his story, moving us along a plane of historic events, smoothing us into his rhythm, carving us into anticipation….
“Step forward many years, to 1993. A young man from Ghana, Africa comes to America…”
For the next two hours, over a four-course breakfast and many mugs full of coffee, Superman and I listened while this adopted descendant of America’s bravest men crafted a story that ultimately was his own. He shared with us his rise to a career as a master woodcraftsman then he shared his mission: to save our nation from self-implosion while simultaneously saving the artisan craft of woodworking.
By the time our conversation with Thomas Johnson was finished, I think no American stone was left unturned. We broke the most sacred of social rules in America—never talk politics or religion amongst folks you don’t know—within fifteen minutes of sitting down at the table. We contemplated business-killing policies, bemoaned inefficient education models, wondered over the long-term effects of social media, struggled to define culture creators, community killers, and the church.
But mostly, we talked about Thomas Johnson’s mission. I’m not even sure how to explain his idea. Maybe it isn’t that I can’t explain it, it’s that I am nearly overwhelmed by it.
Thomas Johnson wants to start a technical school. He wants to take the skills he has developed as a fine woodcraftsman and pour himself into under-employed adults—that growing number of citizens who, for all sorts of reasons, find themselves struggling to participate in the American Dream. He has the land. He has the plans. He even has a name: Mayflower Landing.
Thomas begins his story with America’s founding fathers because it is the founding fathers’ grit, determination, and entrepreneurial spirit that he, Thomas Johnston, brought with him from Ghana back in the early ‘90’s. It is more than that, though.
Thomas understands that life is bigger than oneself and in the end, actualizing one’s potential will always spill over and benefit others as well.
I have been asking myself a strange question lately. One that doesn’t seem to have any grounding in my day to day, but really, has everything to do with my day to day….
”Who or What is creating the culture of America?”
Is the 24-hour news cycle creating culture?
Is reality television creating culture?
Is the entertainment world creating culture?
Do the opinion blogs written to ad nauseam create culture?
Is social media creating culture?
Is our government’s drama creating culture?
Is the church creating culture?
Who is winning the hearts and minds of our next generation?
This weekend, as Robert Frost so beautifully coined, “two roads diverged in a yellow wood…” before me. Down one path goes a generation driven by a culture that lives a mile wide and an inch deep; placated by the immediate until the immediate no longer is even enough. A generation of talking-heads, crying out for community but lacking the skills for creating it and looking to all the wrong places (or people) to create it for them. This generation is culture consumers and America falls like a house of cards.
Down the other path goes a generation able to overcome the immediate, overcome the noise of voices, distractions, ideologies, and non-eternal. This generation sees the need for community. They recognize that the same adversities that brought pilgrims to America and into community; or colonists to unite, declare their independence and take up arms against their mother country, don’t exist today; but there are still adversities that only community can overcome. Most importantly, they see their skills and talents as being for more than just themselves. So, they create. They create from their skill set. They create for a purpose bigger than themselves. Then they create community… because they understand that when creating together, culture is created and America becomes a fertile ground for its citizens once again.
As I walked away from the breakfast table and our two hour story telling time, I prayed that God above would bring Thomas A. Johnson the resources, funding and investors he needs to fulfill the calling of “culture creator” I know he has been given.