DISCOURSE: April - Lee Cabuhat
Welcome to DISCOURSE, my monthly blog series in which I shoot and interview a different individual each month and have a discussion on creativity, innovation, passion, and heart.
You know those people that everybody loves because of how positive and encouraging they are? I first met Lee Cabuhat at a creatives collective night, and I immediately took a liking to him, because not only was he really well put together, but he was also humble and genuinely friendly. I had the privilege of sitting down with Lee on 420 to chat about career, spirituality, art and charity.
Welcome Lee, and Happy 420! Did you do anything special today?
Ah (laughs) no, I worked, and then I took a nap, and then I came to meet you.
Where do you work?
I am a barista at Blue Bottle Coffee at The Ferry Building. I’ve been working there for a little under two months. Before that, I was a microbiologist for 11 years.
What made you decide to switch?
That was a long journey. I got into microbiology because when I was in college, I knew that it would give me financial security. I loved it for a little bit, but after doing it for a long time, I realized that I didn't really have a passion for it. I was just doing it for money, which is not a bad thing - it provided me with a lot of security, like I said, and allowed me to live in the city. But every day I would come home and feel drained. I learned that I was a people person, and I wanted to start a church as well. So in a huge step of faith, I quit my job with nothing lined up. No job, no plan. I just spent a few months taking it easy, praying, learning more about myself, traveling... and I realized I eventually want to open my own cafe that can also serve as a venue for arts, music, and nonprofits. So I decided to work at Blue Bottle to get some good training, and I intend to do that for a couple of years.
Where were you from originally, and what other places have you lived in?
My dad was in the Navy, so I was born in Hawaii, and every three years we would move. So first Hawaii, then Vallejo, then Connecticut, then we went to a tiny island called Guam after that. Then we moved to San Diego and stayed for twelve years, so I went through junior high, high school, and a little bit of college down there. I also lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for a short stint. Finally, I came out here to SF and have never moved since.
What brought you to SF?
While I was in San Diego, I was involved in a long-distance relationship with a girl up here. So I decided to transfer colleges to SF State. When I moved up here, the relationship fell apart after a year, but I ended up staying. I finished up microbiology at SF State, and once I graduated, I got a job at Genentech. That was in 2001.
How have you seen the area change, and how has that affected you over the past 15 years?
What attracted me to San Francisco was that every time I came up here, it was so individualistic, so expressive and artistic, and so diverse: there were different types of people everywhere you went. Fast forward to now: it has changed a lot, and everybody knows that the tech boom has attracted so many people to San Francisco, just like the Gold Rush back in the 19th century, or the Summer of Love in ‘69. Those huge movements brought waves of people from all of the nation and the world. This one is definitely like a modern day gold rush, and there’s a lot of money here and a lot of new businesses. You have a lot of people more focused on starting up a business, or investment, and so on. It’s obviously raised the price of living a lot more than before. What I’ve seen is that it’s driven out a lot of the people in the arts and music cultures. And I get it - it’s hard for someone to live here as an artist. The way it’s affected me is that it’s more than a little disappointing. I wish there could be a balance where we could still have a lot of money here, but still make it affordable for everyone to live, and still have representation of all cultures in the city. But I think San Francisco will change again in no time.
Talk some more about the nonprofit you are involved with.
Teêbo is a nonprofit organization that provides farming aid, humanitarian aid, education, and also spreads the love of Jesus in the country of Burkina Faso in West Africa. It’s a landlocked country and is very dry, and as a result, it’s difficult for people to farm to make a living, or even feed themselves. So Teêbo raises funds to provide support. We do after school tutoring for the kids in rural villages. There’s a sixth grade national exam that they have to pass, and if they don’t, then they end up never going back to school, or repeating it year after year. Since the implementation of Teêbo, we’ve seen a 94% success rate in one village, and a 74% increase in kids passing that exam in another. We’re also trying to build a well there. I was just in Burkina Faso this past December, and the villagers there really expressed a need for a well that’s close to them. We’ve all heard stories about people having to travel miles and miles to get to water, and I’ve seen it. It’s hard. Through partnering with the local churches in Burkina Faso, we’re able to run vacation Bible schools programs to share Jesus with the children over there.
You mentioned that you’re interested in starting a church here in SF. How has that been going?
Oh it’s been great. It’s way beyond me; I totally rely on God to equip me. I’ve also got a good team. There are five of us, and most of us got training in Sydney Australia. We felt called to start a church here, so we did that in January of this year. It started off with just the five of us, and within a few months, we moved into a larger space because we grew to about twenty. I’m the worship pastor there, so I lead worship and write music for our community, and also because we’re so small, we get this awesome opportunity to form these one-on-one relationships with each other, like a family. We’re actually called House, because we want to be in a family with the people of San Francisco.
What’s the main goal/mission of House?
If I were to sum it up, one: to introduce people to Jesus in a safe space, and two: to help people find their God-given purpose in life, whether that’s in their career, or in a relationship, or in their hobbies, and so on. A lot of us neglect it because we’re too scared to fulfill any of those dreams we have because they seem impossible. But House is here to help people realize that with God, everything is possible, and we want to encourage people to fulfill their God-given dreams and purpose.
What are some dreams that you’ve had that have come to pass?
One of the dreams I've had since my mid-twenties (I’m turning 38 this year) is to write music that helps people grow closer to God. I’ve been writing for years, but I’ve been keeping it to myself because I’ve been so insecure. You know with art, you can be easily insecure about your own art (or maybe with your photography if you can relate). There’s always this fear of rejection, like people might not like what you produce. But that’s always been a dream of mine, and lately, with House, God gave me a song called “Our God is Here”, and it’s crazy because the pastoral team decided that we’d sing it for our gathering this week.
What’s your definition of a good life? Do you think you’ve achieved that yet?
The definition of a good life is one that has found Jesus and their God-given purpose in life, making this world a better place, helping people, loving people. With that comes sacrifice, humility, and a persistence in doing it. Other than that, a good life is also not being paralyzed by your fears, not doing things just to please people, but to really find your own individual heart, chasing your dreams, being fulfilled by the simple things in life rather than career, money or image. Gratitude is the key.
How are you working towards that?
I’m getting there by being around people that make me better, that make me realize how blessed and grateful I need to be... taking care of myself, giving myself a chance to breathe, a chance to recharge. I wake up every morning spending time with God to set my mind right and see what I already have, and realize how blessed I am with that. A lot of it also is surrounding myself with like-minded people.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your life?
Some time ago, I went through a pretty painful divorce after being married for six years. That was definitely a challenge, because I didn’t know how love somebody in a marriage. I tried my best, and to see it not work out in the end was pretty painful. There was a lot of shame, a lot of hurt and embarrassment. It felt like a huge failure in my life. I went through almost a year of depression. That was the biggest challenge in my life so far, but it taught me a lot. Thankfully, I was able to learn from my mistakes. I was able to read books, go through therapy, and know how to truly be in a relationship. It’s hard work! Thankfully, I feel like I’ve really put that behind me and strengthened myself in the process. I’ve discovered more about myself so that I can give more and give better, and to understand and have empathy for another person.
What are some of your favorite musical artists? What are some albums that you’ve had on repeat lately?
I listen to everything. I really love the Beatles growing up, I loved The Cure, New Order, Nirvana, Tribe called Quest, Digital Underground, Local Natives, Kendrick Lamar... I like a lot of 90’s hip-hop as well. I’m a huge fan of Hillsong worship albums, and also Jesus Culture and Bethel albums. On repeat lately has been Hillsong Young and Free’s Youth Revival album. It’s dancey, it’s upbeat... I just love it.
What are some things that you listen for in music, and what do you like about those things?
Authenticity is the main thing I look for, whether it’s a positive message or a negative one, or something in between, I like when I know the artist is real about what he or she is singing. That’s what I’m attracted to. Everybody has a right to sing and make music on whatever they want, as long as it’s real.
How do you know that?
Sometimes I can’t, but if I perceive it as real, sometimes that’s good enough. Occasionally I’ll research the artist, maybe find an article that they present themselves in. I’ll also observe their actions. Like if they sing about partying and they’re out partying (laughs) or if they sing about helping people and they’re helping people, or if they sing about struggles, and they come from difficult backgrounds or neighborhoods. Or sometimes, artists will create characters or different personalities in their music, and that’s cool too. They’re trying to think outside the box, or put themselves in someone else’s shoes or a different character mindset, and that’s really creative as well.
Yeah, I think both of those approaches can be evident in all forms of art, not just music. Someone could paint a picture of the place that they’re at or what they’re doing, or they could dream of something totally different. Are there any people that you have drawn inspiration from who have done that? Who inspires you?
Right now it would be Joel Houston who writes worship music. He’s prolific in his writing, and his lyrics often touch my heart, because I’m passionate about the same things that he’s singing about. I’ve heard him speak, and I’ve seen how he’s grown as a songwriter through a whole decade and the weight that he carries: writing songs that bring the whole world closer to God. That’s inspiring to me, because from what I’ve seen, he’s not really doing it for himself. It’s beyond that. I want to be able to write music from my experience of God in life, and have it connect with somebody as well.
Sounds like you have a lot going on. I’ve heard it said that we shouldn’t be striving for a balanced life, but a fulfilled one instead. Seems like you have both.
Oh that’s really good. Yeah, as of now, I have both (laughs). A lot of times I’m off balance, but I do feel fulfilled. And that’s why I quit Genentech. I was working 40+ hours a week, and pursuing my passions after work, and oh man it was draining, it wasn't fulfilling at all, so I finally feel better now. Working at Blue Bottle has been so fun because I’m a people person, so just constantly meeting and interacting with people has been energizing for me. Even if you’re fulfilling your passions outside of work, if you’re being sucked dry from your job, it’ll impact you in a lot of ways, including your creativity.
What advice would you give to someone who may be stuck in that position?
Life is short. You never know when life is going to throw you a curveball. Nothing is guaranteed, tomorrow is not guaranteed, so why not take the risk now instead of waiting for some magical moment or revelation? If you know what you want to do in life, chase after it. Take courage and do something that’s out of the ordinary.
It’s going to be different for each person. My decision to quit my old job was my own personal spiritual journey. One of the reasons I felt like I needed to quit my lucrative career (I was getting paid pretty good money, definitely compared to now) was that I felt God telling me to trust him with my future. I just held on to that job like it was my security blanket and my sense of control. And that’s not a bad thing, but I felt like I was being called to take a step of faith. I’m living here in the expensive Bay Area, and I went from a high-paying salary to something making me four times less than that, and yet I feel so lightweight. I’m being fed, I’m being sheltered... yeah I had to give up a lot of luxurious things and a lot of convenience, but man it’s worth it.
Gear used in this shoot:
-Fujinon 35mm 1.4 lens