D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Category: War Photographers

A piece of the body torn out by the roots



photo by Walker Evans. Please go look at all of his gorgeous photographs right now.


Sorry I have nothing to write about. Life is extremely loud and incredibly private, etc etc.


However, I have been thinking about Artists, Experts, Poverty, War Photographers, Sentimentality, Detachment, Acceptance, Fame, Privilege, Power, and Money. I have been thinking about all the people I know and the exquisite terror of how beautiful and complicated and made in the image of God they are. And, as always, I have been reading. Here is a long quote I have been mulling over:




"If I could do it, I'd do no writing at all here. It would be photographs the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite the novelty; critics would murmur  yes, but is it art; and I could trust the majority of you to use it as a parlor game.

A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.

As it is, though, I'll do what little I can in writing. Only it will be very little. I'm not capable of it; and if I were, you would not go near it at all. For if you did, you would hardly bear to live.

As a matter of fact, nothing I might write could make any difference whatsoever. It would only be a "book" at the best. If it were a safely dangerous one it would be "scientific" or "political" or "revolutionary". If it were really dangerous it would be called "literature" or "religion" or "mysticism" or "art" and under one such name or another might in time achieve the emasculation of acceptance. If it were dangerous enough to be of any remote use to the human race it would be merely "frivolous" or "pathological" and that would be the end of that. Wiser and more capable men than I shall ever be have put forth their findings before you, findings so rich and so full of anger, serenity, murder, healing, truth, and love that it seems incredible the world were not destroyed and fulfilled in an instant. But you are too much for them: the weak in courage are strong in cunning; and one by one you have absorbed and captured and dishonored, and have distilled of your deliverers the most ruinous of poisons; people hear Beethoven in concert halls, or over a bridge game, or to relax; Cezannes are hung on walls, reproduced, in natural wood frames; van Gogh is the man who cut off his ear and whose yellows have recently become popular in window decoration . . .

However this may be, this is a book about "sharecroppers," and is written for those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance, and especially for those who can afford the retail price; in the hope that the reader will be edified, and may feel kindly disposed toward any well-thought-out liberal efforts to rectify the unpleasant situation down in the South, and will somewhat better and more guiltily appreciate the next good meal he eats; and in the hope too, that he will recommend this little book to really sympathetic friends, in order that our publishers may at least cover their investment and that some kindly thought may be turned our way, and a little of your money fall to poor little us."


James Agee, introduction, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men




Your correspondent, has a very bad head cold and needs to go think some more thoughts.





















i am the beggar of the world

url I was at a writing conference over the weekend, the first one I have ever been to. The highlight was meeting up with my friends, my lifeline, my cheering squad, my angel editors--calling them a writing group does not even begin to cut it. I also had the strange sensation of trying to match people up to their online profiles, with varying degrees of success. I knew, even before the conference began, that everyone would be so much more interesting than I could possibly believe. I wandered from session to session, from poet to writer to thinker to theologian. Sometimes I skipped and sat in the grass with good people. By the end, I was overwhelmed in every way.

During the sessions, my mind would sometimes wander. The conference itself was such a small microcosm: dismayingly white, educated, Christian, social media savvy types. I would think about my other life, the one back home. I kept thinking about my students, about the beautiful chaos of my classroom, my friends. As I listened to smart people talk about smart things, hovering between being accessible and literary, I was thinking about cell phones. I was thinking about how every morning I teach, the cell phones always ring, over and over again. I had given up on outlawing them; dozens of times a day I politely yet firmly tell my students to get up and go to the corner of the room to talk, so we can get on with class.

At the conference, I sat and listened to people talking about Novel of Ultimate Concern. My hand wanted to shoot up, to ask the same question in every session I went to: What about the poor? I should get the question tattooed on my forehead. I should make it backwards, just so I have to ask myself it first thing in the mornings when I look into the mirror.What does any of this mean if it is only available for a few?

I am thinking about how my ESL students are at the very bottom of our Empire, but whose lives are very much of ultimate concern. I am thinking about the cell phones, going off every few minutes, similar to the poor around the world, adapting to our shifting, stateless world. I am thinking about how they always answer the phones--not because they do not respect me or because they do not want to learn. They answer every phone call that they receive, because each one is of equal importance to them. They never know who is calling--a family member in Africa, a case-worked in America. They have to answer every single one, because it might be life or death, like so many things are.

They answer every call that comes in because they cannot read, not even the numbers.



I went to a session with Eliza Griswold, author of the Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, a women who has been on the frontline of war and poverty and religion, all over Asia and Africa. She talked about her new book of poems by Afghan women which she collected, and what they mean for those who create and recite them. Why does she share them? Because they are valuable. Why does she share them with us, with the world? Because she sees the limitations of how we portray people in the media, and she wants to subvert that. "I am not interested in the headlines," she told us. "But I am very interested in the places where the headlines are happening".

I'm taking that one for a new life motto. I am uninterested in the stories of poverty that you and I already know. I am very invested in the ones that surprise us, thrill us, knock us on our asses. The humor, the pathos, the sin, the ingenuity. Griswold shared with us one of the poems in her book, from which the title comes:


In my dream, I am the president.

When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.


As you would expect, the rest of the poems are stunningly varied; tragic, violent, romantic, naughty, hilarious, contemporary, ancient. Reminiscent of my students, my friends, my neighborhood. Today, in class, another crisis was revealed, and I at a loss for how I can help, limited by my language and knowledge and the overwhelming magnitude of the problems that the poor and the non-literate face in my corner of the world. The beggars of the world is how some would view it, and I confess at times I am tempted to do the same. But we are not headlines. We are real people, real women, real stories. We are living in the places where the headlines take place, and I on a quest for the work of the kingdom of God in the midst of the violence and greed of our world.

I am thinking of the phones, ringing constantly in my ear, of what it means to never know who is on the other line. I am thinking about the frustration of never knowing how to translate well. I am thinking about how much I enjoy erudite, complex, academic conferences, and how ashamed and small it makes me feel. I am thinking about all the wonderful people I met this weekend, the gifts they are to me. I am thinking about all the people who weren't there, who felt excluded in some way--due to race or education or religion or money. I am thinking about how rich we are in some currencies, and utterly poor we are in others. I am thinking of how in order to tell stories well we must first be obsessed with them, how love covers a multitude of transcribing sins.


I am thinking about cell phones. I am thinking about how little I know, what a beggar of the world I am.






I live in a neighborhood where the youth group comes on Spring Break. I see them prayer walking, prayer giggling, prayer flirting up and down my slushy, grimy streets. I hear them, and I am transported back to last summer, when the churches flocked in to the neighborhood parks, put up awnings, cooked a meal, gave a message. People wandered around in T-shirts that said "Bringing Good to the 'Hood". I went there a few times with my daughter, happy to eat a free chicken dinner. But I stared at the people running around in their lime green t-shirts, and I was confused. I forgot, for a moment, that I lived in the hood. Thanks for the reminder. I forgot, for a moment, that there was no good here until you showed up with your microphones and chicken dinners and matchy-matchy shirts. Thank you, thank you for bringing it, I shook my head slowly, wiped the sauce off of my daughter's fingers.  I felt sorry for the do-gooders who I am now willing to assign positive, if not ill-advised, intent. I felt bad for them, not being as enlightened and humble and missional as I was. I ate my free chicken dinner, on the dime of the large church a few blocks and a million years away from what goes on in this park, and I felt smug. I had lived here one year. I too, in my heart of hearts, believed that I was bringing good to the hood. I had just learned to not put it on a t-shirt anymore.


I am an outsider wherever I go. I on-purpose moved into a neighborhood, a job, a life, and relationships with people who are so very different from me. It takes so much work, every day, just to navigate the perils of these differences. To try and understand better. To try and learn better. To try and advocate in a way that is actually needed. To will myself small, like the little seeds Jesus was so fond of.

But inside there are dreams of large trees, big enough to create safe havens for the birds of the air. I am writing, all day every day, in my head. The disasters, the miracles. The despair, the joy. The abuses, the sadness, the mental illness, the addictions, the disabilities; the perseverance, the community, the colors, the embraces. The erasers taped on to the end of a pencil. A box of free bananas in the hallway. The snow slowly melting to reveal a graveyard of vodka bottles, gray and blue and brown. The youth group roaming outside of my window, hungry and scared for that mysterious, inscrutable kingdom to come. I don't even know it until I write it all down: I love them. I love everything about my life, even as it pulls me down, forces me to see inside myself in ways I never wished for. And that too, I must write about.

Every day I surround myself with people who are so different from me. Every day I write. There are so many ways I could do it better, so many fears of not doing it right. Like translating poetry, as my friend J.R. says. We have a choice: it is too much work, too perilous, too fraught with complications and you leave it be; or, you pick up your courage and try your darndest to translate to the very best of your ability. Either way, your heart comes out a little bit more broken.

One of my writer friends was talking to me about her own feelings on the subject. She mentioned the War Photographer series we ran here, and how she thought about it often. I just wish, she said, that so many people hadn't ended in the place of "well, it's really hard and complicated, so I guess I better not tell any stories". Her voice is ringing in my ear, echoing what I don't say often enough, but I believe right to my very core: there are so many stories waiting to be told, and they need to be told well.

I am in the thick of it; my life is a fine balance between learning and practice. Of getting high and mighty and then getting the smugness kicked out of you by life. Of blundering, learning, making mistakes, asking for forgiveness, picking yourself up and trying again. Of becoming paralyzed by our privilege and choices and systems, and forging on to be the miserable, lonely, messed-up agents of reconciliation that we really are.

I still have dreams of large trees, of beautiful safe places for the sparrows of our world. This, of course, is one dream in the kingdom of God. But for me, these types of dreams are so tied to productivity, problem-solving, tangible proof that I am bringing good, one small step away from a lime green t-shirt of my own. And the reality, the way I have seen the kingdom at work in my life is like seeds spilled and scattered on the ground. I am the farmer, oblivious and bumbling, not knowing how in the world these seeds sprout and grow. But they do, the seeds of Christ and his love for his world, they are sprouting all around. Some look like weeds to me, some look like fruit, they all look like people I know and love and am in relationship with. I always thought I would be ready for the harvest, a sickle in my hand, content to reap and be proud of all the good work I had done.

And instead I am being told to sit tight, listen hard, and watch the kingdom grow.  Be prepared to have your heart broken over and over again. Pray for the day when you are no longer needed, and until then translate those poems you are privileged enough to see, the ones that often enough look scattered, lonely, decayed and forgotten.

And stick around long enough to see the good that grows up and out.











Expensive Narratives: Captain Philips and the Somali Community

I watched the Oscars on Sunday (how did I make it through award shows before the snarky, humorous insights of Twitter?) and I rooted for my boy, Barkhad Abdi. Even though I knew it was a long shot for him to win Best Supporting Actor, it was still surreal to see one of my neighbors, a Cedar Riverside proud Somali boy, walking that red carpet. And it made me long for the day when actors like Barkhad and Lupita have thousands of roles to choose from--and they don't just have to play pirates or slaves.  



I recently wrote about what it's been like to be at the periphery of the East African diaspora in America. Every day I am astonished at who is carving out a life in this frozen tundra of a land (Lewis and Clark deemed it "inhabitable" back in the day, and I am inclined to agree with them). I find myself living and working in the heart of a community which is complicated, inspiring, thriving--and repeatedly misrepresented by the media.

I haven't written too much about my personal life here, for many reasons. The spotlight on Barkhad Abdi and his role in Captain Philips made for a timely piece, and it finally felt appropriate for me to share my own experiences here.  While I am not an expert on Somalis or the East African community, I believe that it might be helpful for other outsiders like myself to get a peek at a different narrative than the one we are being told over and over again.

Here's the beginning:



My friend was celebrating Eid Al-Adha, the Islamic holiday commemorating the feast of Abraham, like everyone else was: by going to the Mall of America. I went with her and her family, wearing the clothes she had given me for the occasion. My dress was colorful and flowy; we wandered around the mall and people-watched. It was still a bit early, but the large East African diaspora in the middle of the Midwest was already beginning to pour in. Families, as far as the eye can see, laughing husbands, smiling mothers, children running and shrieking, everyone dressed up in their best clothes, shopping, riding the carousel. I followed my friends, insecure in my outfit, feeling like an imposter or worse—someone playing dress up. The clothes that hung so elegantly on my friends looked like a costume on me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had done something wrong, just by trying to fit in, to look like everyone else, to celebrate a day and a culture that is not my own.

After a few hours, my friend took off to go see the movie Captain Phillips in the the theater, while I headed home. Later, I asked her what she thought of the film. Oh my gosh, she said, it was amazing. Really? I asked, slightly taken aback. Yeah, she said, the whole theater couldn’t stop laughing. Laughing? I asked, at what? Isn’t it a sad movie?

Yeah, I know, she said, but we couldn’t help it! Although I was a little worried—the few white people in the theater started staring at all of us. But any time one of the Somali boys on-screen would start talking, we would start to laugh. It was just so funny to see them up there, talking in Somali.

Why was it so funny? I asked, still confused.

She turned to look at me, and said it matter-of-fact: because we had never heard anyone speak Somali in a movie before. It was so strange, and so, so funny.  She paused a beat, and then acknowledged: even if what they were saying wasn’t really funny at all.

Go to Christ and Pop Culture to read the rest. The piece is an exclusive feature that has been shared with you but is otherwise available only in Volume 2, Issue 5 of the Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. For more features like this, download our app for iPad and iPhone from Apple’s App Store.  More information here.

A Fight For Beauty--Guest Post by Marilyn Gardner

Marilyn is a dear presence on the internet, full of wisdom and calm and yet a heart that is always searching for more. I adore her for her heart for cross-cultural relationships and her literary approach to life. Marilyn is totally somebody I want to grow up to be like. Fighting for beauty is definitely an everyday part of life over here (some days it is a  battle, other days it is easy as pie). And the fight for love, truth, and beauty is always worth it.


A Fight For Beauty

Guest post by Marilyn Gardner


It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’m looking out my window at a blanket of white snow. It is soft and pristine in its beauty. The snow has covered up cars, streets, sidewalks. It has also covered up garbage bins and garbage.

My Greek neighbor has already been out shoveling and I hear the sound of his metal shovel against the concrete. He puts the rest of us, who wait until we have no choice, to shame with his disciplined shoveling and keeping of the sidewalk in front of his apartment snow-free.

The snow is beautiful. But I know in an hour, two hours tops, it will have turned from fluffy white to squishy brown. Because this is the city.

There are times when living in the city is not about downward mobility, when it’s not about relationships or intentional living.

Instead, there are times when living in the city is about a fight for beauty.

This was true in Egypt. It was true in Pakistan. And it’s true where I now live.

We live in the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, not the Cambridge of the Harvard elite or the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) nerd. Rather, the Cambridge of the other 80%. The Cambridge that is middle class, refugee, immigrant, or single mom.

The ‘real’ Cambridge, we like to call it. The Cambridge where high school students refer to areas as Coast and Port and where teen moms bring their babies to the day care center at the high school. The Cambridge where cars are broken into and neighborhoods work hard to become safer. The Cambridge where the homeless gather in raucous community at Central Square, oblivious to any great minds that may have walked their path. The Cambridge where Jahar Tamarlaen, the alleged Boston bomber lived and played sports and went to prom and knew my daughter.

And in this real Cambridge I realize that for me it becomes a fight for beauty, a fight to see redemptive beauty in daily life.

In the spring, it’s a fight to find the crocus that has worked its way through hard, city soil and blooms, brilliant blue or yellow. A fight to see beyond city problems to forsythia, that first reminder that spring has come.

In the summer, it’s a conscious effort to see the rose peaking through the rusted chain-link fence; to see sun flowers raise their giant heads tall to the sky against a concrete back drop. It’s a fight to see beyond the cigarette butts crumpled on the ground with last night’s garbage, made worse by the summer rain, and see instead dew drops on sparse grass.

In the fall, it’s a fight to look up and not down – up at towering trees glowing in Autumn glory, taking me away from broken bottles and ugly, barred windows.

In the winter, it’s a fight to see beyond the bitter cold mornings and homeless huddled under thin blankets, grey and worn. A fight to take the extra step and buy that cup of blueberry coffee with 8 packets of the artificial sweetener – because that’s the way he likes his coffee. A fight to find out names and see Sheryl and Valerie and Donald as real people, not homeless numbers. A fight to witness Imago Dei in the eyes of those who walk these streets.

So I walk and I put on my armor so I can fight for beauty. So I can walk with lenses cleaned, eye-sight restored to see beauty in the ordinary, everyday ugly.

A fight for beauty – a prayer that the Beautiful One who restores and redeems will give me eyes to see beauty.






unnamed-2Marilyn Gardner was raised in Pakistan and as an adult lived, worked, and raised a family first in Pakistan and then in Cairo, Egypt. She now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she works as a public health nurse with underserved communities and vulnerable populations. She wrestles through life, faith, and third culture kid issues through blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.








For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.

If You Knew Me, You Would Care

slide_280128_2092282_free Another day, another dollar, another crisis I should be caring about.

Another day, another post, another thought on downward mobility--how the term doesn't work, how it isn't good enough, how if we don't have love . . .

Another day, another question. Not the ones I used to ask (Lord, send me. Let my heart be broken by the things that break your heart.) but the ones I don't care to admit to anyone (have I done enough yet? Can I relax now? When is enough enough?)


I started a new job this week, it's perfect for me in every way, down to the level of chaotic ambiguity that surrounds the classroom. I teach literacy to adults who may never have held a pencil in their lives before. We meet in a computer lab, a battered fooseball table for my desk. I don't know all of the stories of my students, because we don't speak the same language. I can guess at the little I know, which is laughable. And it is hard, wearisome work, to go over the ABC's a thousand times and then for us all to realize that nobody remembers them still--the after effects of war, trauma, unmentionable acts committed against the body and spirit. Learning to write your own name becomes a symbol of something so much more: you are an overcomer.

Refugees have changed my life in so many ways. Once I meet a group, a clan, a tribe, I want to know so much about them: the way they dress, the tattoos on their face and hands, what their favorite food is. I want to know about their past, if they want to share it. I want to talk about all the ways that America has been kind, and all the ways that she has been cruel. I want to be a friendly face, a listening ear.

I want to know all these stories, and more, because they are the only things that get me to care about anyone besides myself.


My husband just checked out a book from the library called If You Knew Me, You Would Care. In it there are large, breathtaking portraits of women--survivors of unimaginable traumas. These women were interviewed and photographed by other women, and their stories shock and amaze. Their faces, so large, so human, so crystal-clear, run the range of human emotion: improbable joy, blankness, defiance. I could look at these pictures for hours. The stories, I only glance at briefly. How much more tragedy can I bear?


Perhaps this is why the images in the book are so big. The hardest quotes, filling up an entire page. To me, they say: Don't look away. If you knew me, you would care. If you stopped to humanize me, even for a second, it would change the way you lived your life. Because caring doesn't equate with an emotion--sadness, shock, gratefulness. Caring equates with tangible, physical acts: cups of cold water, Jesus would say. A coat to someone in need if we owned two. An hour or two out of our day to visit those imprisoned or in the hospital.

But it's easier to close the book, go back to my life of worries. I write blog posts about downward mobility and dream at night of one day having a space for my child to run in the grass; I spend an hour or two praying for eyes to see and hands to bless my neighborhood, and sink exhausted on my couch every night, escaping either into a book or a television show.

Because I know people now, and they have made me care. But here is the other truth that no one want to talk about, that we spend all our time protecting at all costs: our culture thrives on forgetting. On distractions, petty concerns, and the crushing pursuit of individual comfort. Every day is a struggle to care. The only thing that makes it easier is if you are forced to confront it, time and time again. If you put yourself in the position where you can't opt out--where there are no drive-through Starbucks, clean and bright Barnes and Nobles, massive church complexes with state-of-the-art sets. Where instead there are tangible evidences of the disparity of our economic system, where people are much more comfortable in voicing both their joys and complaints in the streets. In order to care, it turns out, I have to be in a place where every day I have to look one simple truth in the eye: my reality is not the reality of the majority world.




I read an excellent blog post this morning--honest, searing. In it, the author says:

"Can we, being part of the top 10% wealthiest in the world, be trusted?  How does our dependence on wealth color our self-assessment and judgment?  Regardless of how earnestly wealthy Christians try to be directed by the Holy Spirit of God, we've all still got our goods—not to mention our social standing, class, gender and ethnic power.  We remain comfortably perched above global exploitation.  Is that just "the path" Jesus has called us lucky ones down? Or have we neglected something in the 'I'll follow you wherever you go' tune?"

No matter where I go, I'm still comfortably perched. No matter what I do, it isn't enough. Yes, yes, Funfetti and all that. I know that God loves me no matter what I do. But he also loves the people being crushed by the systems that make my life better. He Loves them. He is in constant sorrow over them. He will avenge them, surely. And he would like me to get to know them, for my own sake as much as theirs.

Talking about downward mobility doesn't even begin to scratch the surface when we are talking about the suffering of people in places like Syria right now. Almost every day I am in contact with someone who has experienced their own form of Syria, has overcome so much more than I could ever imagine. Every day my hands are open, empty, pleading. I don't know how to help. I don't know how to do anything except show up again, to prepare to be overwhelmed once more. I look into their eyes and think: that's why I moved into your neighborhood--so then I can't escape your reality as easily as I would like. 

Shane Claiborne worked at a mega church for a year, and this is what he walked away with: "the problem isn't that there are rich folks and poor folks in the world--the problem is that the rick folks don't know any poor folks".

Because we all have the image of God in us. And if we knew the poor--as in, longer than a week, a blogging trip, a year in the ghetto--we would care. We would care to the point where love would compel us to do things both crazy and mundane. Our lives would revolve not around safety and security but around justice and righteousness.

And we would all be richer for it.


My internet friend Marilyn contacted me about spreading the word about some tangible ways we can help Syria. She put together a blog on some practical kits that concerned people can put together. Click here to read more at her space, or you can go directly to International Orthodox Christian Charities for more information on the kits.

All images from If You Knew Me You Would Care, by Rennio Mafredi. For more information on the book (a part of Women for Women International), please click here.



The Stories We Want to Hear

  photo by my amazing husband.


I wrote a piece for The Curator this week on some ethics we may want to consider when writing non-fiction. It sort of processed a few of my thoughts from the War Photographers series, and I got to name-drop my favorite authors (Rakoff, Foster-Wallace, Boo) and talk about being a Christian and writing about others. You know, my jam.


Here's the intro:


The past year, my toddler and I started attending a mommy-and-me class. We deliberately picked one that focused on a diverse group of people—indeed, we found ourselves to be the only native English speakers in our class, save for the teachers. As an ESL teacher, this was perfect—hanging out with a bunch of women from all over East Africa (the cohort we ended up in) was the only way I would have been motivated to get my two-year-old and me out the door every week. Interesting, hilarious, devastating—the stories and discussions we had in our little group had me glued to my chair, every time.

One day the head teacher pulled me aside and asked me how I thought the class was going. I told her truthfully that I loved it, especially since we always veered somewhat off-topic (we were an opinionated, non-linear bunch). She cocked her head and looked at me, trying to size me up. “You know,” she said, “our program gets a lot of heat for not being diverse enough.” I knew that we were a blip on the radar, one class out of hundreds full of people who all looked like me. “But after teaching these classes for over thirty years, let me tell you something—people always say they want to be in a diverse class. But what they really mean is that they would like to look around the room and see people who look different from them, but who act exactly like them.” She sighed, and shook her head. “They say it, but they don’t actually ever want it.” She patted my arm, and wandered off to stop Mohammed from flinging himself off the plastic slide. And as she said it, I knew she was right. She was talking about me.



Go on over and read the rest at the Curator. 



(PS:  I really like the Curator. They are the only site I could think of that would let me talk about all those aforementioned authors AND what a Christian ethic of non-ficiton would look like. They have inspired me to seek and pursue after beauty, everywhere. They are currently holding a indigogo campaign that you might want to think about checking out).

(PSS: Just yesterday the great Rachel Pieh Jones published a bunch of amazing resources for those of us who are interested in the ethics of non-fiction. I want to read all the books! Go check that out here.)

Fellow Traveler

It's been a little quiet here, but it doesn't mean my life has been like that. Since January, when I decided to stop writing about my every day life, I have experienced a profound change. I love letting this blog go. I love pouring out my angst into safer vessels (my journal, husband, and *gasp* even Christ). I love giving up a piece of myself that I was finding just a bit too much identity in. And identity, and vocation, have been very much on my mind as of late.

I started the War Photographer series because I had a lot of questions in relation to my identity as a writer; what I got instead was a collection of thoughtful, hopeful treatises on the inherent value of our neighbors, and an admonition to do absolutely true by them. To love people well, to write about them second. To live life together, and out of the overflow of relationship speak. In the end this is what I discovered: I don't think we are ever truly meant to be a War Photographer--it is a vocation borne out of the brokenness of our world. The true ideal is much simpler, much less grand: we are called to be neighbors, not transients reporters.

The reflections on War Photography have changed and moved me, and I am grateful to the myriad of voices that contributed. I still have a few more guest posts in the works that you will not want to miss, and then this series will be done. I created a tab at the top where you can find the entirety of the series, in the order that they were posted.

I wrote a little bit about this journey for my good friend J.R., over at her excellent blog. Here is an excerpt:

I am currently in a season where it is not valuable to write about my life; relationships are still in infancy, my own emotions are all over the map. In the future, there may be a possibility of doing it well. But for now I am in a place where I am learning to dig deep wells, both within myself and my community. I am in a place of seeking solitude, of sitting with my questions, of discovering who I am and what I believe. This is not a time to produce, to be subject to the whims of the crowd. This is a time to dig deep, to enter into the wilderness with no knowledge of when, or how, I will ever come out. Like Buechner says: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” By stepping back and allowing some silence into my writing life, I have found the antithesis of fear. I have allowed love to open up my thoughts, words and actions. I have given up the right to represent people, to use them, and to process through them. I am trying to give up my idols of being understood, of being recognized, of putting the entire burden of the world on my small and stooped shoulders. Instead, I am busy pursuing reality, and it is more beautiful and terrifying than I ever imagined.


Go on over and read the rest. 



But: just because I will not be writing about my specific context doesn't mean I won't be writing.

Stay tuned for some exciting new stuff.


How To Be A War Photographer

Today is part 2 of Darren Prince's post on mutuality and accidental distances (You can read part 1 here). Today, I asked Darren to bring it--and he did. This is the post I wish I had read years ago, one I wish all bloggers, writers, photographers--heck, anybody trying to talk about their lives with integrity--would read and absorb.

In the next couple of weeks I will be talking about how my writing habits have changed dramatically, and what that means. It is challenging, exciting, and energizing to write in the small, mustard-seed ways. It is the hardest, and most rewarding thing there is to step back and allow space for reflection--which allows the small signs of the kingdom to bloom and sprout and be shared. 

Thank you, Darren, for writing out a very practical guide for all of us. 

How to be a War Photographer

Now then, how about we pull up to 30,000 feet and indulge in a little metacognition together? By which I mean, let’s talk about what we’re talking about when we tell the stories of our neighborhoods. Got it?

I’m not much of a blogger and don’t have anything by way of an internet following. But I’ve lived in two major cities, befriended dozens of people (rich and poor alike), and communicated vision, purpose and just plain “updates” via good-old-fashioned newsletters for over fifteen years now. I’ve seen a thing or two and have learned to sniff out those moments, sometimes while the ink-toner is still drying, when I’m about to cross the line from creative to creepy.

The last thing I ever wanted to do was be “that guy” who posts a “Top 7 Ways You Can XYZ!” on the internet, but hey, at the special request of our host, I’ll empty my pockets for you. Besides, if I had kept it I’d probably drink with it anyway.

1. Grow Up Already

Look, the metaphor gets overused, but somehow we still forget it. Jesus himself incarnated as a baby into a particular family, in a particular culture, at a particular time in history. He then weaned, waddled, teethed and toddled his way through childhood into awkward adolescence. Finally, he gets around to kicking off his public ministry at the vigorous age of thirty.

Maybe he needed time to learn language, figure out how to address his elders, or practice culturally relevant storytelling in an agrarian society. (My bet is that he spent time learning to laugh at himself). All I’m saying is he showed up, grew up, and then did his thing. And he didn’t even write about it. He left the writing to others.

I think a lot of the damage is done when we’re new and we don’t know any better. We can’t help seeing things from our own frame of reference; but in our enthusiasm to dispatch updates back to the home office, how can we be sure we aren’t merely reinforcing the same tired stereotypes?

The solution? Give yourself time. You’ll see things differently in six weeks, six months, six years. You’ll chuckle to yourself when you realize in hindsight what that awkward moment was all about at the party four months ago. You’ll wince to realize that the connection you thought you were making was actually just another deep disconnect.

And you know what? That’s okay. Growing up from zero was good enough for Jesus. It should be good enough for us. Just don’t publicize it all. You know, like those parents who post to Facebook every poo-poo little Johnny makes? Don’t be like that with your inner cross-cultural child. Let her grow up with some dignity intact.

Keep a (private) journal instead. Write letters to mom, or call a friend. Find a community (a local one, even if you’ve found a virtual one) to journey with you through the hard stuff. Invite them laugh and lament with you.

And for crying out loud keep your vomiting off the interwebs for a little while. The medium matters. Google is real and your quirky little anecdotes about your neighbors are searchable, indefinitely archived for future civilizations to scratch their heads at and wonder.

I have a friend who says don’t post or send anything you wouldn’t be willing to hang on the refrigerator for your neighbors to see. Do it for the dignity of your future best friends.

2. Re-Shape Your Readers’ Expectations

The point of my previous ode to mutuality was this: if genuine friendship invites us to step into the war-photo, we begin to care even more about how the lighting looks. When we’re personally invested in the story of what God is doing in our neighborhood, we want to make sure that story gets told well.

This means writing without exaggeration or added drama. We can leave stories which exploit for page views (or donations?) to other media outlets. (Must. Resist. Linking example offenders here.)

And besides, it’s boring. Story distortion goes all the way back to Eden where the Serpent conveniently misquotes the Maker. Half-truths and mistaken attributions are old-school enemy tactics; Kingdom storytelling can do better.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing for unflinching photo-realism here. But the truly great stories you want to tell about your friends or your community - the happy stories and the hard ones alike - if they’re truly worth telling, they won’t need anything added or embellished.

In a world where somehow we’ve allowed fog machines, stage lighting, and even zip lines to super-size our worship services, it’s time we taught our readers the pleasure of a simple story told well. I wrote an entire newsletter once about missing a bus (and the miraculous conversation about Jesus which followed). Another update featured our family practice of inviting friends over for Saturday morning pancakes. Not exactly shovel and pith-helmet material here folks.

Some of us are torn between our desire to communicate with integrity and a readership - sometimes, a donor base (?!) - which is eager for results or infatuated with the brightest, shiniest new thing. But life in a mustard-seed kingdom starts small and grows slow. People who choose to accompany you for that journey need your help recalibrating their expectations. “If you’re looking for earth shattering headline news, look elsewhere. Or come back in twelve years and let me show you around.”

Yes it’s fashionable, even expected, for non-profits to have a slick plan and a fail-proof strategy; I’ve got nothing against that. But on slow news days it’s so much easier to write a tragic story in which we get to play the white-knight-to-the-rescue.

In reality, sometimes the best we’ve got to report for this month is, “Here’s how we’re muddling along.”

My solution? Remind people that you’re still in a posture of listening and adapting. The world needs more “Here are a few things I’m learning, but I might be wrong” posts from those of us laboring for the common good. Writing with humility reminds our readers that there are humans involved, even humans who make mistakes out of a desire to help. Writing with mutuality in mind prevents “the poor” from being objectified as problems in need of a solution.

As you describe your own journey, warts and all, your discoveries become your readers’ discoveries. Their view of your context reaches upwards, stretching to fit yours as they watch your “growing up” right in front of their eyes.

3. Run It By Somebody First

To summarize what I’ve said so far: Give yourself time to “grow up” and see things differently before you start writing about it. But if you have to write, do it with integrity–a kind of faithfulness to the whole story–including your part in it!

But before you release that colorful piece of reflective writing into the wild, first consider running it by a trusted friend. Invite them to be a check against your tendency to embellish the facts or add sizzle to something in a way which might exploit or diminish.

I’d love to believe we could all be trusted to do this for ourselves, but sometimes we just need another set of eyes. Our stubborn writing habits and lazy inconsistencies are experts at hiding out in our blind-spots. Nothing clears the cob-webs like the honesty of a secondary read-through. Followed by a straight-talk chaser. Find this person and you’ve discovered gold.

Better yet, share a draft of what you’ve written with the very person you’re writing about. Beyond just asking for vague permission, ask them if what you’re sharing is okay with them. Do they remember the story differently? What would they change? Do they find it honoring or diminishing?

I realize this suggestion tests the full mettle of what might be a blossoming mutual friendship. But each time I’ve done this the responses have been everything from flattered to deep appreciation and joy. There’s a sacred moment to be savored when we realize - no, when we accept - that our story is important enough to be shared with others. I watch in awe as this realization creeps across the faces of my friends. We are both left wide-eyed at the wonder of it all.

When I asked my friend Joe if he would like to preview an early draft of yesterday’s post about him, he wryly responded:

"Darren, are you telling stories about me again? Well, don’t let the pen get more mightier then the sword! Hah. Well, send me some of the dirt as they say. And I will shovel it out."

Then when I sent him a close approximation of what you read yesterday, he emailed back his approval with two quick lines:

"It sounds about right as I recall. Thanks for the memories :)"

Here again, in the sacred space of our friendship, we’ve formed an alliance around the sharing of the story we hold in common. The story of his transition off the streets into permanent housing, and of my “growing up” on the streets under his mentoring and kindness. Our story of mutual transformation; the one in which God grants us both the unexpected gift of a life-long friendship.

DP 2012Darren is a former Californian living in London, married to Pam and raising three increasingly British-sounding children. Since 1997 he’s been part of InnerCHANGE, a Christian order pursuing merciful action, transformative contemplation and prophetic justice in urban centers and slums around the world.

He enjoys single-origin coffees, reading for pleasure, walk-and-talks with friends, and geeky tech podcasts. Sometimes you’ll find him picking up toys before a family dance throw-down in the living room.

Darren has contributed to “Sub-merge: Living Deep in a Shallow World” by InnerCHANGE founder John Hayes, as well as “Living Mission: The Vision and Voices of the New Friars.” Though he would much rather do this stuff than talk about it, maybe one day soon he’ll start a new blog, where he will most likely not write about himself in third person. You can follow him @darrenprince

Don't you think Darren should have a blog? I do!

As a reminder, the War Photographer series seeks to ask and somewhat answer questions of representation. How we go about sharing stories that aren’t our own–specifically the hard stories? How do we put a spotlight on some of the forgotten stories of our age while still giving dignity and respect to the subjects?

For more in the series, please click here.

War Photographer: Darren Prince

I am beyond thrilled to introduce today's guest post, because it is perfect for where we are at in this conversation. Darren is an excellent writer, a large-hearted thinker, technology geek, coffee snob, and all-around cool guy. He is someone who has been living and working amongst the poor for a very long time, and he has some deliciously concrete thoughts for us. Today, he is going to share a bit of his story and thoughts on War Photography, and tomorrow he will be back with some practicalities (a list!) for those of us struggling with how to share these stories well.



On Mutuality and Our Accidental Distances

Photo of Joe by Paul Nix

My first decade of urban life was spent unlearning patterns and habits I’d picked up in the saccharine safety of my suburban upbringing. This was made abundantly clear when my homeless gutter-punk friends in San Francisco gently suggested I no longer wear my college sweatshirt. The metamorphosis of downward mobility is agonizingly slow and sometimes painfully embarrassing. Now, in hindsight, retiring the “blue and orange” for a tattered black hoodie was the easy part.

My mentor in the ways of the street was a middle-aged homeless man named Joe. By the time I met him he’d spent half his life as a wandering nomad. The most permanent address he had ever held was a foxhole so deep in the woods of Golden Gate Park that gardeners and police would never find him. I was occasionally invited back to visit him at his camp spot. It was the only place in the city where you could listen to crickets and watch the fog roll in.

Joe and I became good friends. He introduced me to his street pals and I occasionally had him over to the house for a meal or a shower. Then there was the time he orchestrated a “learning exercise” for me and a few others: a real-life, multi-day homelessness “taster” Joe had named “First Hand Experience.” The title was blunt and uninventive, but there was a kind of mischievous glee in his voice as he announced it. (By the way, as much as I loathe most “homeless excursion” attempts out there, you really can’t beat one that is constructed and supervised by a real homeless person on real streets for multiple days.)

By this point in our friendship Joe had moved out of the park and into the room next door to me in our home. But we shared way more than a wall. Looking back on it, this was an ambitious undertaking. He was my homeless street mentor and I was his housemate. We were like two cultural anthropologists attempting to do field studies on one another, but with neither one of us in our natural habitats. It’s a good thing we were friends or we probably would have killed each other. [1]

I glimpsed the irony of it all on the morning of day four or five of Joe’s craftily arranged “First Hand Experience.” We were camped out in the park through several sleepless nights of rain and heavy fog, bedded down on cardboard Joe had taught us to scrounge. We relied on leftover handouts and shared food from the underground food co-op Joe brokered amongst his other homeless friends. I woke up tired, sore, and desperately in need of a hot cup of coffee.

That’s when Joe walked up. Smiling. Freshly showered and perky from a great night of sleep at my house. He claimed he was just stopping by to check up on us; just him and the steaming hot cup of Starbucks he was holding. —- There is a story about C.S. Lewis which I heard once but haven’t been able to verify anywhere official [2]. But since this is the internet, I’ll let it stand on its own even if it blurs the line between fact and fantasy [3]:

Lewis was once out on a stroll around Oxford with one of his fellow professors, as was his regular custom, when they happened upon a beggar asking for change. Lewis reached into his pocket and dropped everything he had into the beggars hat.

“Why would you give money to that man?” Lewis’ friend asked incredulously. “You know he’s just going to use it all for drink.”

Lewis replied, “If I had kept the money, I’d have used it for drink as well.”

Many people ask me what they should do when homeless people approach them for money. Honestly, I don’t have a stock answer because I don’t think every person or need is the same. But I do love telling that Lewis story. I find his honesty disruptive, his humility unflinching. And I love the way that triangular interaction between Lewis, his skeptical friend and a beggar, peels the curtain back to reveal our common humanity.

Sadly, we are often so consumed by the differences we see in the “other” that we forget all the glorious and inglorious things we hold in common. Our mutual love of coffee or disdain for cats. Our potential misuse of money which isn’t ours to begin with. The quiet ache for far-away family. Our secretly-nurtured insecurities and harbored fears.

Pushing past “mission” to find genuine mutuality is more than just a postmodern catch-phrase like “incarnational” or “community.” It’s the basis for transformative friendships like mine with Joe. Somehow, in that painstaking journey from “client” to “friend” we stopped viewing one another as bags of assorted issues that needed fixing. I abandoned the notion that Joe take off his boots before getting into bed now that he was living inside. And Joe stopped reminding me that life wasn’t run by what I kept in my Franklin Covey day-planner.

Somewhere in there we laid down our armaments of mutually assured condemnation and discovered the beauty of generative friendship. Mutuality broke through like sun piercing San Francisco fog. —-

So my only problem with war photography as an image for this series is the distance it suggests. Like somehow I’m supposed to pull back, stand at a distance, and hold a lens between me and what I’m observing.

I already come from a long tradition of inherited distance from the poor and marginalized. I’ll be honest, I reek of privilege: middle-class, college educated, heterosexual North American male. I can’t apologize for it, but I can learn to acknowledge how privilege influences my view of the world: like a distortion lens on every photo I want to take.

So in my nearly twenty year quest to see things from a different vista, I’ve become growingly aware of the accidental distances I create to preserve myself. Not to mention the distances created for me by others.

But what happens if I set the war-camera on a tripod and step into the picture myself? Not in an artificial or nuevo-colonial way, but to the degree that I’m invited in by my neighbors who have become my friends? What happens when “their neighborhood” becomes “ours?” When that troubled school down the street becomes the place I entrust my children to? Where the “unsafe streets” are places where we’ve both made our dwelling?

This is where friendships formed around mutuality become a life-line, closing the distance between my unchecked cultural assumptions and your reality. We can no longer hide behind the masks we’ve fashioned for ourselves - or assigned to one another.

Mutual friendship is how the stories we tell about others - and about ourselves - become truer at the core. When we’ve stripped back the embellishing Insta-filters we place over the stories we tell, and let the raw exposure peek through, a quiet integrity emerges. It’s the integrity that comes with the realization that this is our story, the story of us.

So the story of my generosity in response to your need is only one angle; what about the part where we’re both just as likely to spend the money destructively? What about the part where you’ve welcomed me into your home just as much I’ve welcomed you into ours? How do I account for the unnumbered ways you’ve taught me more than I could ever imagine teaching you?

photo by Peter Anderson

Not far from where we now live in London, a stone statue rises in memory of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. It’s always been a peculiar statue to me, in part because of its posture, but also for what it’s missing.

There stands Booth, tall and commanding in his army-like attire, with a stern look on his face and one boney pointer finger raised in the air, like a preacher in mid-sentence or a judge about to lay down the law. For all the good Booth did for the poor of east London during his era, it seems odd that his sculptor chose to memorialize him as the fiery street-preacher he was in his early days. But that’s not the part that intrigues me.

This memorial statue has been mounted atop a short half-flight of stairs, as if William Booth somehow ascended his soapbox one day, raised his preaching finger in the air and froze in time forever. Is it a warning? A welcome? A reminder? (I so want to tie a string around that finger someday, my subversive act of vandalism for the social good).

But here’s the thing. Months before the London Olympics in 2012 a second set of steps was erected immediately across from Booth’s statue, a subtle counter-point to Booth’s memorial.

Only, it’s been left empty. Six steps lead up to a vacant platform.

And I find myself wondering - who was that platform built for? Perhaps it’s for Booth’s wife, Catherine, who though unmemorialized, was equally a co-conspirator and co-founder of the Salvation Army’s work among the poor. Where is her statue? (And what would her frozen-in-time posture be?)

Maybe the newly added steps to nowhere are an open invitation for the future Booths of our community to ascend and carry on in prophetic urban mission. A kind of permanent casting-call for would-be figures of William and Catherine’s stature.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s a public artist’s ode to mutuality. Where anyone can rise and be at eye level with our neighborhood’s greatest hero, pointy finger and all. Where perhaps the poor of our community can stand up and finally tell their own stories for themselves.

  1. Correction: It would be generous to suggest that I’d stand any chance against this guy in a cage match.  ↩
  2. Maybe here?http://cslewis.drzeus.net/papers/son.html  ↩
  3. It should be noted that this is perfectly acceptable when it comes to the likes of C.S. Lewis.  ↩

DP 2012Darren is a former Californian living in London, married to Pam and raising three increasingly British-sounding children. Since 1997 he’s been part of InnerCHANGE, a Christian order pursuing merciful action, transformative contemplation and prophetic justice in urban centers and slums around the world.

He enjoys single-origin coffees, reading for pleasure, walk-and-talks with friends, and geeky tech podcasts. Sometimes you’ll find him picking up toys before a family dance throw-down in the living room.

Darren has contributed to “Sub-merge: Living Deep in a Shallow World” by InnerCHANGE founder John Hayes, as well as “Living Mission: The Vision and Voices of the New Friars.” Though he would much rather do this stuff than talk about it, maybe one day soon he’ll start a new blog, where he will most likely not write about himself in third person. You can follow him @darrenprince

Don't forget to come back tomorrow for installment #2 of Darren's post!

The War Photographer series seeks to ask and somewhat answer questions of representation. How we go about sharing stories that aren’t our own–specifically the hard stories? How do we put a spotlight on some of the forgotten stories of our age while still giving dignity and respect to the subjects?

For more in the series, please click here.

call the midwife

I have long wanted to write about the television series Call the Midwife (and also the books it is based on) because to me it is far and away the best thing in pop culture we have in regards to all these issues of representation we keep talking about. So I did.

It is funny to me that I find myself writing about pop culture once or twice a month these days. I guess I like doing it because for now, I am still very committed to not blogging about my own life, and am in a season of learning from others. And it seems that every where I look there are places to learn from (both positives and negatives). I actually identify greatly with the heroine of Call the Midwife, as she bumbles about, gets disappointed, shocked, overwhelmed  but generally feels like the luckiest girl in the world to be where she is.

If you haven't seen the show, I highly recommend it (the first season is on Netflix streaming, and the second is currently free on PBS.com). Trigger warnings GALORE, however. If you (like myself) have experienced a traumatic pregnancy, or if you have any fears about pregnancy, or if you might be pregnant or possibly plan on being pregnant in the future . . . well, bring your tissues, and be prepared to peek between your fingers. It can get pretty rough and raw, but that is the reality of our world, eh?


image via Pinterest

Here is an excerpt from my piece:



In her book, Jennifer Worth describes a conversation she had with Sister Monica Joan, the oldest (and not always lucid) nun in the convent. Nurse Jenny asked the sister about her decades-long ministry with the poor in the East End (Sister Monica Joan grew up in an affluent aristocratic family in which she felt bored and stifled). Wondering about the underlying reasons for her work, Nurse Jenny asked Sister Monica Joan, “Was it love of people?”

"Of course no," she snapped sharply. "How can you love ignorant, brutish people whom you don't even know? Can anyone love filth and squalor? Or lice and rats? Who can love aching weariness, and carry on working, in spite of it? One cannot love these things. One can only love God, and through his grace come to love his people."



For the rest of the article, please go to Christianity Today's Out of Ur blog.


What about you? Any television/movies/music/books that you think have done a good job in representation?

War Photographer: Kelley Nikondeha

Kelley is the loveliest, in real life and in her writing. She may or may not be the next Walter Brueggemann. I asked her to do a special post for this series on how she talks about adoption--specifically with her kids. I have long been uncomfortable with some of the ways adoption language gets tossed around, but Kelley has always shown such grace and aplomb. Plus, she is brimming with wisdom and theological depth, yet she still remains resolutely planted in "real life"--which includes some very challenging, messy, and glorious places. I view her as a friend and mentor, and I am privileged that she chose to share in this space. 

photo credit: Ellen Olive Photography

Tandem Stories

While I haven’t birthed my children, I’ve birthed their stories. In the early days our adoption tale felt legendary, laced with Spirit-whispered promises and just in a nick of time departures and a medical miracle for good measure. To tell these stories was to tell my story of deep formation during the adoptive arc, revealing my eventual status as an accidental mother of two Burundian babies only possible in the imagination of God.

I had to tell these stories of how God created a mother ex nihilo, how God healed a baby found on hospice watch, how an adopted child became an adoptive parent. These came from my own belly.

I beamed as I held my browned babies, as I held my glowing stories. Speaking them out was the most natural thing to do, testifying to a great goodness done unto us.

But as my children learned to feed themselves raspberries, turn on lights, unlock doors and move from me at increasing speeds my sense of things changed. They were growing up and already moving away from me, starting that long process of differentiation. I knew they wouldn’t always be mine to corral and control. And neither would their stories.

Before we even celebrated our first Adoption Day together I began holding their stories closer, giving fewer details about how they were orphaned and then brought home. I spoke less of my daughter’s former illness, lest I surrender too much to strangers before she could comprehend her own healing. I began wondering if I’d already given too much away.

I realized that telling our children’s stories is a complex endeavor because they are also our stories. At what point along the umbilical cord does mother diminish and child increase, mother ending and child becoming a separate individual with a unique story? I found it worthwhile to consider where my story ends and theirs begins.


In truth, it will be years before my children understand the fullness of their adoption narrative. There will be many winters and summers before they can give me permission to share about these intimate experiences that happened to all of us. Along the way they’ll discover the details, feel the emotions, construct frameworks for understanding and, if I’m so lucky, share with me how the story unfolds from their vantage point. So I do reflect on this interim period.

I confess some struggle as I cross their storyline now and again. At first it was the adoption chronicles, but nowadays it’s the daily-ness of growing up together. My kids do intriguing things, especially as bi-cultural children straddling fall in the States and spring flights to Burundi. They offer alternatively simple and stunning insights into these cultures and places. And when my son reflects on Jesus stories and makes connections to justice and dreams of bringing equity to Africa – I want to write about it all! I hesitate, though. What I want is a clear easement, to know that I have the right to cross over their story and share some of it alongside my own. I’m constantly wondering who holds the copyright on these tandem stories.


When I write or speak, I do so as a woman who is wife, lover of justice and jubilee, friend to the poor, an adopted child and a mother of two robust babies. My own thinking is shaped by motherhood as much as my seminary degree, recently read books, global friends or my bi-cultural life. Maybe in this season, mothering shapes me most. When I speak about the fullness of my life without mentioning my children my own story feels incomplete. (This is when I feel that phantom umbilical cord still connecting us.)

And here’s another thing – my children are teaching me how to be more human. So if I write about my own plodding transformation, I must mention my young mentors and the lessons they offer. It’s my children who challenge me to be more kind, embody grace, practice forgiveness and let go of anger. It’s increasingly impossible for me to describe my journey without mention of my fellow companions, to speak of transformation sans the catalyst.

But I’ve decided to write with them in the story and in view. I’ve accepted the invitation down this harrowing road, navigating between mine / ours / theirs. Since it will be years before they can offer true permission or input in the telling of these tales I feel the need to tread soft and slow.

So with each piece I stop and think about what to say, what to leave out, what to leave ambiguous. I try and leave room for them to grow beyond my descriptions, to someday annotate them when they’re able. For example, I try not to say my son is an angry child, but to talk about how he’s learning to handle those hot emotions. I imagine him seeing this as a true statement, one filled with a mother’s confidence that he will, in fact, master those outbursts. And I hope he feels I represented him within a redemptive and maturing arc, not locked into forever being an ‘angry child’ by my pen. I pray when he reads my story, it will echo with truth from his own experience. Then the story will truly be ours.

In the meanwhile I must write with a long-term lens. I consider how this story about my son, my daughter read ten or twenty years from now. If I hit it right, then years from now my children will see how I attempted to love them well, learn from them and for them. They will see then how I always believed in them and knew goodness would grow in them with each episode, each season. This means I tend to write these stories in my journal and hold on to them awhile, not rushing to post. I want to make sure each story told can withstand the test of time – a few weeks, some months and then maybe years beyond today.


photo credit: Ellen Olive Photography

I hope to write about adoption someday, about the redemptive energy that circulates in and from the company of the adopted. I want to unpack the theology, make some connections and suggest how adoptive people can offer unique gifts to a fractured word in need of our kind of healing. But to write this out will require a bit of honest memoir, describing both what it is to grow up adopted and mother adopted children. I’ve been harboring this in my heart for months, because any words in print have to be written to last. And I’m not sure if I’m ready to write our story just yet, I carry this fear and trembling every time I think about it.

Because as my children grow, this is no longer just my story of bringing Burundian babies home. My story is maturing into our story, something we hold together somehow despite our age difference. And I never want them to regret my written record of our story, to accuse me of misrepresenting them. I hope they never feel I (even unintentionally) exploited their experience. So I wait, because my children matter. I hold on a little longer than I want to out of deference to them. I will write, but only when I sense we are ready.


The question looming – how we do this living, learning and telling together while respecting one another? Obviously I carry the weight of this question now – as mother and chief storyteller. I wonder if motherhood gives me such wide jurisdiction over their unfolding stories or not, at what point do I consider them as fellow humans with a shared history? When do I cede to their copyrights over these jointly held stories?

Yes, I do think about privacy when I write about my kids. I try not to be too revealing, I try to share more redemptive episodes and not create a record of their youthful folly. I consider protecting them, and so try not to use their names often or too many details that would identify them. But most of all I consider their humanity, their own history and their right to own and tell their own stories. I aim to honor them as we (and our shared stories) grow together.




RjImages-1063Kelley Nikondeha is a thinker, connector, advocate, avid reader, mother of two beautiful children, lover of God's justice & jubilee.  She co-leads theological conversations at Amahoro Africa and is chief storyteller for Communities of Hope. Kelley and Claude do life in transit between Arizona and Burundi. She’s in transit between continents but also in terms of her own experience of motherhood, discipleship, theological engagement and living into God’s dream for the world. She savors handwritten letters, homemade pesto and anything written by Walter Brueggemann. She is fueled by space and snacks (and Diet Coke). Blog: kelleynikondeha.com Twitter: @knikondeha


Psssst: isn't that the coolest tattoo? You can read the story of that here.











The War Photographer series seeks to ask and somewhat answer questions of representation. How we go about sharing stories that aren’t our own–specifically the hard stories? How do we put a spotlight on some of the forgotten stories of our age while still giving dignity and respect to the subjects?

For more in the series, please click here.

War Photographer: Sarah Bessey

Whenever I just want to be done with the internets for good, Sarah Bessey is what changes my mind. She has been doing her own thing in her corner for a long time, and her writing is beautiful, aching, honest, and more poetry than prose. She is supremely talented at both being an advocate AND creating safe spaces for dialogue--all the while moving you to tears. I am more than honored that she is sharing in this space today. What she writes here is very near and dear to my heart, and is a game changer for describing how we ought not use others for our own purposes. Please check out her gorgeous blog (and get ready for her book, which i can't wait to get my greedy little hands on). 




In which I am (not much of) a war photographer

It's been more than ten years since I was introduced the terminology of "missional church." Hey, what do you know? we are meant to live out the Gospel in our daily, walking-around lives, as missionaries in each and every context. Amazing, right?

As a refugee from the mega-church movement of modern church life and fame-seeking Christian celebrity marketing, the missional living conversation was a timely lifeboat for my journey. I loved Jesus, I struggled with the circus, and this was a call out of a churchy-ghetto, and into the real world with a message of Love. Now my life, even here in a prosperous corner of Canada, is a missionary life, a life of embodying God's hope and good news. Justice and mercy, hope and goodness, love and peace, are desperately needed. My friends were not going to church and were suspicious (even hostile) of labels like "evangelical" but I was going to my friends, and so the idea of missional living made sense in my context.

I was reading books from seminary academics and interacting with emerging church thinkers and theorists. But it all felt rather like an ivory tower to me, divorced from real-life application and living out. I often thought to myself, well, that sounds great but what does it mean in my real life?! At the time, there weren't a lot of bloggers writing about missional living (well, in those days there weren't so many bloggers, period), story-telling hadn't become the saturated scapegoat medium of Christian writers, and the terms "ordinary radical" and "missional" hadn't jumped the Christian publishing shark.

So I decided to start writing about how this whole "missional thing" actually looked in my life, right here, in Vancouver. I was full of ideas - I would write stories about my interactions with my neighbours! with my co-workers! with my friends! with strangers at the park! with the poor and marginalised in my city! I would be the "voice on the ground" from the front-lines of this whole missional life, these stories would be valuable and needed. I could share real-life conversations with real-life people. Church people would learn from my arguments disguised as stories. I had an agenda for justice! and maybe I could be, like, the VOICE of missional living in real life! People would learn and understand how to actually apply the theories now!


Clearly, I had missed the point. But I wrote a few posts over the period of a year or so. Then I stopped writing those stories. I ended up deleting every single post.

The very nature of arguments require simplification. When we are arguing, we go to our base lines. We turn people into props, interactions to proving grounds, theology into theories, because we have a point to prove. We make arguments for good reasons - I have no doubt about that.  And arguments have a place, perhaps. We have an end game in mind: we want to raise money, we want to do good, we want to change the world, we want to make a difference, vivé la revolution of love! But agendas turn our lives into arguments and proof-points, instead of invitation.

Arguments and agendas require simplicity. Relationships make room for complexity and nuance.

Arguments and agendas require a clear story arc: setting, conflict, climax, resolution. Relationships allow for ebb and flow, for intimacy and redemption, for non-sexy work of showing up over the years, for the working out of God's goodness already worked in. How does it glorify God or embody the Kingdom of God to use people as props "for the greater good."

I deleted those essays because the more enmeshed I became in the actual "living" part of the missional living theories, the more I realised one thing: these are my friends. These are my neighbours. These are my co-workers. I loved them. And when I loved them, I didn't want to use them as props anymore.

I hadn't written anything terrible, anything revealing. But I had written about them as if they were props, I had used them to make an argument. In my rush to tell stories about missional living, I had dehumanized my friends and my neighbours.

Talk about missing the point of the Gospel.

I remember the day someone found out what I had done. She came across my blog by chance. She was devastated by my "stories" from the "front-lines" recounting our conversations. Understandably, she felt used and she felt betrayed by me. And she has never forgiven me. I lost a friend. I still can't think about this without a deep sense of guilt and grief. I was absolutely in the wrong.

All of these things were in my mind when I was invited to join the Help One Now blogger trip to Haiti last year. Too often, we bloggers and writers use the excuse of storytelling to advance our own agendas and arguments. That feels false to me, both as a writer and as a follower of Jesus. We can all tell the difference between a real story and a creaking morality tale: we can all tell the difference between a friendship of mutuality and a clumsy attempt at following the agenda. There really isn't a way to make someone feel loved and valued while simultaneously using them as a prop for a purpose.

I was afraid of extreme poverty, afraid of leaving my family, but mostly I was afraid of screwing up and hurting someone in my heart to do some good. It seemed easier to do nothing, than to risk damaging the dignity of Haitians. Yet I felt very clearly and strongly that God had wanted me to do this thing. So I went but I went in "fear and trembling" with a tremendous desire to honour Haiti, and a cautious sense of calling. I was committed to people, not arguments, even for a good cause. I wanted to learn from them. I knew the likelihood of my return to Haiti was small but that didn't give me an excuse, not anymore. Even if my new friends in Haiti would never read my blog, even if they never saw a picture I took, even if they never heard a speech I gave on their behalf, I needed to write and blog and talk about them like they were sitting right here in the front row.

No more two-faced storytelling for the purposes of argument. That excuse won't fly anymore.

I don't know if I did a good job. Only the people of Haiti can tell me that. But I tried and I wrestle even now with relating these stories because aren't I doing this very thing again? I don't know. I tried to figure out how to do some good and even build a school from the standpoint of relationship instead of argument and agendas. I've learned by now that God is just as much concerned with the means as the end.

Even now, six months later, when I write about Haiti, or I write about Mercy Ministries of Canada, and particularly when I write about my own small life here in British Columbia, I wonder: relationship or argument? It's a cheap use of my stories - let alone my friends or my family -  for the purposes of arguments. These are lives, not theories; souls, not vehicles for setting, conflict, climax, and tidy resolutions. I don't always get it right. I make apologies often.

I want to be faithful to nuance and complexity, to the light and the shadows, in both relationships and story-telling. I am still learning to embrace wandering truth in favour of crisp arguments. I want to make it my ambition, as Paul admonished the church in Thessalonica, to live a quiet life of profound consequence, focused on embodying God's kingdom way of life here and now and loving others well.

Because the very nature of missional living is indeed the embodiment of the Gospel. And the Gospel is good news, the news that God is for us and God is with us and God is Love and Life. So our living out of the mission needs to reflect the heart of our Sender: it needs to look like respect, like secret-keeping, like relationship instead of arguments, to even begin to hint at the vast love and affection of our Father towards us.



Sarah Bessey 300x200Sarah Bessey is a writer and an award-winning blogger (www.sarahbessey.com). She lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia with her husband, Brian, and their three tines, Anne, Joseph, and Evelynn. Her first book Jesus Feminist will be published by Howard Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) in 2013. Sarah is an editor at A Deeper Story (www.deeperstory.com), and a contributor at SheLoves Magazine (www.shelovesmagazine.com). She is a happy clappy Jesus lover, a joyful subversive, a voracious reader, an unrepentant hashtag abuser, and a social justice wannabe.


(psssst, Sarah's book can be pre-ordered here. Yay!)





The War Photographer series seeks to ask and somewhat answer questions of representation. How we go about sharing stories that aren’t our own–specifically the hard stories? How do we put a spotlight on some of the forgotten stories of our age while still giving dignity and respect to the subjects?

For more in the series, please click here.


Banging on the Door of Photojournalism

Peter Anderson (a pretty spectacular War Photographer himself) directed me to this essay by Chicago photojournalist, Alex Garcia. Here is an excerpt:


The man was pounding on my door, angry drunk, slurring loudly in Spanish and imploring “Maria!” to come out of my apartment.

But Maria wasn’t in my apartment. I didn’t even know who Maria was.

He must have been on the wrong floor.

Like I said, he was drunk.

He kept banging, violent and insistent.  Although I was screaming back in Spanish, “No vive aquí!” he wouldn’t listen. Then I heard him trying to bust the lock.

The whole thing was escalating out of control.

Did he have a weapon? The thought of him breaking the door down was in the back of my mind. I didn’t know what I would do. I called building security. No one answered.

I called 911.

Minutes later, he mercifully stopped. But I still heard him fuming at the end of the hallway, in the stairway, as if lying in wait.

Finally, the police came.

When they did, one cop took down my record of what happened while the other rolled his eyes. I was insulted and called him on it. He didn’t care.

After all, I was living in a low-income apartment in a city that saw frequent violent crime. What did I expect?




Read the rest here.


Garcia's personal story is fascinating--but the rest gets even better. I appreciate this essay primarily for the essential truth: your photos (or writing) reflect where you live.

This is a very close-to-my-heart concept, although a bit secondary in my case. I identify with Garcia in that I am sick to death of the same old stories, and long to hear and see news of the kingdom in all its mustard-seed glory. So how many of us are willing to be embedded?




War Photographer: Kevin Hargaden

Kevin Hargaden is a treasure of the internets. I just recently found out it was because he is Irish--none of that American Christian grimness about him, no sirree. He is funny, delightful, and heartbreakingly aware of just how bad things are on the ground. I'm so glad he agreed to write this post, but I am even gladder still for the life and calling he has chosen to live. Please do check out his always excellent thoughts over on his blog, and his be sure to follow him on Twitter as well.  


For the last fifteen years in Ireland, living as a Christian has meant living through story after story after story of people abused horrendously within churches. I grew up and came to faith in that time. It has seemed as if every successive year there is another detailed report into the terrifying violence that took place within the church, which was conducted by leaders in the church, which was covered up by the people of the church. For this the church still has not acknowledged wholeheartedly and repented truly.

Invariably war photographers have to document carnage and brutality and their goal is that somehow by recording it - by broadcasting it, by capturing it – the stories of what has happened won’t be lost and won’t be forgotten. The war photographer hopes that by taking photos of war, they will contribute to the cessation of war. As an accidental war photographer of abuse within the church, I feel compelled to retell the story in such a way as to honour the victims, to expose the truth and to prevent it from happening again.

When trying to share these stories there is much to be avoided; the tabloid desire for prurient details, the brutish hunger to turn in aggression against perpetrators and most importantly the commodification of the stories so that they become an instrumental tool to achieve some other aim. The last concern is one about which I must be most alert. I feel like a war photographer who gets his work seen from an obtuse angle. If I present an academic paper that critiques pristine, abstract theological models of church, I will write it heavily influenced by the decrepit, actual crimes of our churches. Yet my address might only tangentially touch on the abuse scandal and instead appear to be preoccupied with the writings of Henrí de Lubac or Karl Barth. I imagine it is a bit like a war photographer who gets his pictures published in a botany journal. “Look! I found this rare orchid… Yes, well noticed. That is a war waging on in the background right behind the flowers.”

There is much to be avoided but there is one thing that I seek: to dignify the victims by honouring the truth of what has taken place.

My First Holy Communion

I had a very low intensity exposure to the church growing up. We had a parish priest called Fr. Vincent Keaveny. When he would visit our primary school, classes would be suspended and we would all be herded into our cramped little makeshift assembly hall. This man, who seemed as old as Abraham to us, with yellow skin, would stand on a little stage in front of us and teach us to sing, “See this little light of mine? I’m gonna let it shine” while performing actions that went along with the song.

It appeared to us as if Fr. Keaveny’s primary purpose was to inform us in many different ways that we were good and that we could do good. He had a curate, Fr. Rossa Doyle, a priest who moved with a deliberative patience that put us at our ease. He was a man who never confused us. When your job is to explain the mysteries of God to children, that is a remarkable achievement.

In recent years I have often thought back on Fr. Keaveny’s approach to pastoring a congregation and teaching young people. At the age of 6 or 7 he left me with only the vaguest impression of who Jesus was, barely a concept of what the Gospel was but absolutely no doubt that God thought I was good.

There is something saintly in that.

My father, growing up in 1950s rural Ireland was an altar boy into his early 20s. He later confessed to me that he would have considered joining the priesthood but he knew he needed a suit to go up to the seminary. His family could not afford that. I wanted to be an altar boy like my dad. How good it would be help Fr. Keaveny as he went around doing the good work of telling people they could be good.

Also, if you did a funeral or a wedding, sometimes the families would give you five pounds and I could spend that on World Cup Italia 90 stickers or put it towards some more Transformer toys.

The only truly negative experience that I had in a church growing up was to do with serving the altar. I was probably too young and I was definitely insufficiently trained. One summer’s morning I went down to the church and there were no older boys around to help. I had to do the job solo. I tried desperately to remember when it was I should ring this bell and when it was I should bring over that chalice.

I can honestly say I did my absolute 8 year-old best that day. And in retrospect, I can see that there were few more sincere, heartfelt acts of worship in my youth. When mass finished, I went into the sacristy and the priest followed me in and began shouting. He called me an embarrassment. He asked me what did I think I was doing out there? He told me I should be ashamed of myself.

At the back entrance to our parish church there is a gentle slope up to the road above. The footpath is lined by cherry blossom trees that would explode into bloom in late Spring. I realise now that their chorus of colour was a Psalmist’s cry, rendered in leaf and bud, ushering the parish into the everyday magnificence of Ordinary Time on God’s watch.

I wasn’t used to adults raising their voices at me. My parents were gentle and calm. My teachers tended to like me. My football coach trusted me. I went for speech therapy with final year students who practiced on me as part of getting their degrees and in my mind they were the most beautiful women God had ever put on Earth. Adults never shouted at me.

It must have been shock then, that allowed me to maintain my dignity and protect my pride by holding my chin up while I walked out of the sacristy and out of the church. But the moment I crossed the threshold the tears began to fall. My face stung as if I had been hit. There is an inner-city Dublin phrase to describe blushing; that you are “scarlet.” But the “t” goes silent so you say “he was scarleh.” That wouldn’t begin to describe me. Running up that hill felt like scaling a mountain. I sprinted as fast as I could for as long as I could until I was out of breath and then I walked as slowly as I could manage because I wanted to gather myself.

I needed to get myself together because I wanted to hide what had happened from my family. After all, it followed that if the priest was embarrassed by me, I would embarrass my family. If the priest thought I had shamed myself, I surely had brought shame on my family. I didn’t want to disappoint my dad. In my child-logic, that is what this would be. My grandparents were deeply, sincerely devout people. My paternal grandmother lived in the house next to mine. She appeared to pray constantly without any joy. My maternal grandmother lived on the other side of the country. She appeared to have turned joy into prayer. I didn’t want them to know how I had let them down.

For the last five years I have been in college with men training to be priests. From listening to them and from sitting through way too many Canon Law lectures and studying liturgy and the Catholic theology of Eucharist closely I can better understand why that priest lost his head with me. In the gracious providence of God I can report that he has mellowed over the years. Decades since he left our parish, he still checks in on my siblings and me, wanting to know how we’re doing.

I made it back to my house. I sat down to lunch as if nothing had happened. I let it casually slip a few days later that I didn’t want to be an altar boy any longer. Nothing more was said.

And I didn’t tell another soul what had happened until more than fifteen years later when I told my wife.

Protest art about church abuse on the streets of Dublin. (credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/infomatique/8010431147/in/photostream/)

 If I felt such shame for something so trivial - if the holy authority of church leadership unintentionally exerted such trauma on my conscience that I harboured a secret for the majority of my life over something so negligible and so forgettable as ringing a bell at the wrong time at mass – how hard must it be for victims to speak about abuse in the church? What courage must it take to stand up and confront their abusers?

In 2 Timothy, Paul seems to talk about passing on leadership in the church as if it is a relay race. Becoming a leader in the church is like receiving a baton from the older leaders as they finish their laps. For me and my generation, coming into leadership in the Irish church, the baton is damaged almost beyond recognition. It looks so different from the way it ought to look that it is natural for us to question if they are really handing us the Gospel at all.

The succession of investigative reports published since 2005 have revealed a culture of abuse that was “endemic within institutions where there was a systemic failure to provide for children’s safety and welfare.”# My suspicion is that we have not heard the end of this story. My hope is that no similar story will unfold within evangelical churches but my hope is faint.

As I receive the baton then, I feel it is an obligation on Christian leaders to point out the ways in which the message of Jesus and our witness to his Kingdom has been marred by the abuse of children God put in our care. We must continue to re-tell these stories of abuse, in ways that honour and respect the victims, because until we as church absorb them into our identity, justice has not even begun to be done. The astonishing good news that we declare in our churches must be tempered by an acknowledgment of the astonishingly bad things that have gone on in our churches. We re-tell these stories because justice is not opposed to grace, but an integral aspect of it.

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin, one of the most impressive voices for reform and repentance in the Irish church.  (credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/worldeconomicforum/8417299148/)

Finally I think it is part of the vocation to leadership that we must tell these stories because the only way to stop abuse in the church is to widely disperse the responsibility to protect against it and expose it. In every ecclesial abuse scandal, in every church or institution, regardless of location or denomination, the key criteria at play was the unaccountable access that leaders had tos children and the unassailable authority that leaders had in the face of accusations. Only when we confront ourselves with the stories of the victims and the sins of the church we inherit can we hope to build a church that leaves no space for such violence to grow. Until then, the war photography cannot cease.




SONY DSCKevin was born and bred in the Dublin suburbs. He has an Irish aversion to writing bio-pieces since they invariably sound cocky. He is training to be a minister with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, but is studying for that at a Catholic seminary. He can't sing but he does lisp. He loves the Simpsons, the parables and making lists but perhaps not in that order. He blogs at www.hargaden.com/kevin about faith in contemporary Ireland and he can be found on twitter.











As a reminder, the War Photographer series seeks to ask and somewhat answer questions of representation. How we go about sharing stories that aren't our own--specifically the hard stories? How do we put a spotlight on some of the forgotten stories of our age while still giving dignity and respect to the subjects?

For more in the series, please click here.

War Photographer: Tara Livesay

Tara Livesay is my real-life hero (she will throttle me for saying that, but still--it's true). She is a killer writer, thinker, mom, missionary, midwife, and long-distance runner. I love her because she is so honest, so in the thick of everything beautiful and awful about our world, and she can be absolutely hilarious in the midst of it all. I beg of you to check out her website, where you can learn all about her fabulous family and their life in Haiti. I have been looking forward to this post for a long time, and it dropped the hammer, just like I knew it would. Tara and her family are truly people who ask the question: how do we share these stories well? Because they must be told. 

photo by Troy Livesay

A young couple moves into a new neighborhood. The next morning while they are eating breakfast, the young woman sees her neighbor hanging the wash outside. "That laundry is not very clean; she doesn't know how to wash correctly. Perhaps she needs better laundry soap." Her husband looks on, remaining silent. Every time her neighbor hangs her wash to dry, the young woman makes the same comments. A month later, the woman is surprised to see a nice clean wash on the line and says to her husband: "Look, she's finally learned how to wash correctly. I wonder who taught her this? " The husband replies, "I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows." And so it is with life... What we see when watching others depends on the clarity of the window through which we look.–Author Unknown


When one of the poorest countries in the world happens to be positioned a mere 700 miles from the southern tip of one of the richest countries in the world,  short-term and long-term missions abound. I am citing no source but I’d venture to guess this is the most visited, blogged about, and photographed “mission” destination on the planet earth.


The convenient 90-minute plane ride from Miami means an estimated 200,000 people per year come to Haiti. Many seem to think that their group or purpose or trip is a one-of-a-kind and are incredulous when they hear how frequently large groups of matching T-shirts arrive here with similar plans. Additionally, there are thousands of longer-term workers sprinkled all across the island.


It is common for these expats to arrive thinking of people as projects.


As we are all prone to do, people show up here having already decided things about Haiti. They hear the tag lines and have watched or read the mass media news stories and they build their image of the country and her people and what they need before they ever set foot on Haitian soil. Wherever they hail from, they seem to arrive having heard about vodou, poverty, danger, an earthquake, and orphans.


For whatever reason there is a movement among evangelical churches and faith-based organizations that markets mission trips in such a way that it casts the missionary as a hero and those on the other side are in dire need of their help. This means that in addition to what the prospective visitor has heard and decided about Haiti, they are also being told that in one or two weeks they might be able to make a significant impact.


For an extended time, our family has been learning and growing and being uncomfortably twisted and molded by living in this land that so many visit. During these years we’ve learned about our own pride, our own soul poverty, and our preconceived ideas. (Related: We have become cynical and skeptical and things we don’t like too.) We now better recognize the ways in which we have painted this place with a broad brush and forget that individual souls created in the image of God should not be reduced to our small-minded descriptions or looked upon as a project.


As a body of believers called to bring the justice of Jesus and the Kingdom of Heaven to earth it does little good to arrive with anything decided. Each one of us is wonderfully complex and unique and we would do well to remember that is true of everyone, everywhere. Media reports and the State Department don’t have the ability to summarize hearts of people. Churches and mission organizations should not market with the “go save them” narrative.


In our time here, working with and observing different organizations, we’ve had an opportunity to witness many visitors. Perhaps the marketing of short-term trips feeds the problem. When cast as the hero, you are bound to come in with an air of superiority.  That to say, at times we cringe over things said and done.  The cringing comes partially from a place of our own guilt, in knowing we once said and did disrespectful things; in knowing we probably still do sometimes.  Other times we gasp at the disdain some ‘heroes” carry with them.


It is not at all unusual to hear visitors botch something up they are working on and say, “Oh well, it is good enough for Haiti.” I confess that it is those people who I want to follow home with a gallon of ugly colored oil paint and an old tattered brush and walk into their kitchen to show them what my “good enough” looks like at their house.


On occasion our second daughter agrees to translate for teams.  One such medical team was performing minor surgeries.  One of the surgeons brought his fourteen-year-old son on the trip.  The son observed the surgeries and occasionally held a tool or handed his father something.  At one point in the week the father asked his son if he would like to do a spinal-block.  The Doctor stood nearby as his son performed the block.


I am certain the doctor didn’t necessarily mean harm, but when a well-trained, perfectly able physician allows his fourteen year old to stick a needle in someone’s back it says,  “This is good enough for a Haitian”.  As my daughter told me this story I wondered if the physician would appreciate a rookie shoving a needle in his child’s back.


The truth of the matter is this, somewhere along the line we all became convinced that we are a big deal arriving to a place or a people that need us.  Therefore, anything we do is better than nothing, right? (That doesn’t sound like Jesus to me.) This superiority leads us to think, and even say, “Well, it is good enough for them.”  Casting ourselves as the fixers and heroes and “them” as the project is troubling on many levels.


If we want to let the river of His justice flow through us, we have to arrive aware of how prone to superiority we are, how prejudiced we are. We must examine our motivation and presuppositions in the light.  What window am I looking through when I look at others?  What window am I seeing myself through? I know my tendency is to think I am needed. It is a difficult but necessary exercise to continually spend time asking Jesus to mercifully guide us as we attempt to walk with people in wisdom and humility.


God is not made manifest in our ability to “fix” or “heal” or “solve” anything.  He has not cast us as the heroes. He is made manifest in our humility and in our own need to receive healing.  When I can see my own weakness and pride and my need for grace and healing I am left in a position of having nothing to offer …


And you know what?

When I have nothing to offer, Jesus shows up.

Tara tries hard to learn life's lessons the first time but usually doesn't.  She is mom to a rambunctious crew of kids and is learning and working in the area of women's health/midwifery in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She writes at www.livesayhaiti.com

For more in the War Photographer series, click here.

War Photographer: Abby Norman

Abby Norman got my attention when she broke the internet with this post on not sharing stories. Abby has worked in inner city schools, which tends to get more than a little sensationalized press in our society. I love this perspective on teacher-as-hero-in-inner-city-schools movies, savior complexes, and justifications for passivity. Be sure to check out Abby's blog, and I thank her kindly for bringing her sharp perspective here today.  



What Teacher Movies Don’t Teach

When I was in college, I borrowed my boyfriend's car to take myself to the movies on a Tuesday night. I sat in the middle of an empty theatre in Muncie Indiana and wept and cheered for Akeelah and all her spelling glory. I left that theatre inspired. I would be that teacher. I would grow my students to their fullest potential. I would change the world, one student at a time. I could not wait to get into my classroom.

This was not my first foray into the teacher movie. Not only had I seen Dangerous Minds starring Michelle Pfeiffer, when I was 12 I read My Posse Don't Do Homework, the book the movie was based on. I loved Finding Forrester and Freedom Writer; any movie where the teacher was the hero was a movie I wanted to see.

I suppose I was attracted to these movies because they made me feel special. They made me feel like what I was about to do was important. They promised me that if I wanted it badly enough, if I just dug deep enough, I could be the change I so desperately wanted to see in my future students’ lives. My career would be a teacher movie and I would be the star!

Three months into my first classroom experience, I despised these movies. Every. Single. One. I hated the promises these movies had made me. I hated the details these movies left out. I hated the way people referenced these movies with a wink and a nod when I told them what I did. These people thought they understood my world, they had seen the movies.

These movies may have made the classroom that I taught in more accessible to those who would never enter this world, but it also made the teacher the only person who could make a difference. I once loved these movies because they told me that I would be the one to make the difference, but when I got into the reality, I was crushed under the weight of the pressure I had been so attracted to. During my first year of teaching, the kids called me Freedom Writer like it was my name. ("Who you got for English?" "Freedom Writer.") It was a constant reminder that I was not enough.

Here are the things the teacher movies don’t teach you: most kids’ problems are far greater than what one English teacher can fix in the span of fifty minutes a day for one hundred eighty days. Physical hunger and feeling safe at home have major impacts on the classroom environment, and are out of the teacher’s hands.  Between lesson plans, referrals, attendance, and field trip requests, there is enough paperwork to necessitate a personal assistant. Sometimes a teacher has to choose between grading yet another class set of papers, and her sanity.

The thing the teacher movies don’t teach you, is that almost all of those “give it everything” teachers they make movies about quit within the first three years. The lifestyle is simply not sustainable.  It takes a village to raise a child, and I have come to believe it takes a village to teach one too.

The truth of the matter is this: teaching in movies is like sex in movies. They leave the boring awkward bits out. It doesn't always go smoothly. It isn't always as exciting.

Copying entire chapters out of books that are falling apart and making class sets of them, cutting out the letters to staple onto the class bulletin board, sitting at Starbucks grading 150 research papers (half of which are accidentally plagiarized) these are the things that teachers do with their planning period. There is never enough time.

High needs students are just that, higher in need. Yet high needs schools are least likely to have parents fighting for an opportunity to volunteer in the reading nook. Meanwhile, schools where kids already have every advantage are advantaged again by parents who are willing and able to volunteer.

By casting the teacher as the hero, people give themselves permission to not help. The teacher is special; there is nothing “normal people” can do. Turns out, if you can use a pair of scissors you can be a major force in the elementary school classroom. Every spare minute a teacher has because someone cut out the bulletin board decorations for them, is a minute the teacher can be doing something extra for students that so desperately need it. Imagine the kind of classroom environment four friends and a shared Pinterest board could help create.

Teacher movies don’t tell that story. There isn’t a movie about how a group of volunteers took over a classroom and helped to create a warm and loving environment for the year. When the story of education is framed as a teacher and her students, there is no room in the picture for anyone else. But there is room for everyone else, lots of room, in lots of schools. There is likely an opportunity at your local high needs elementary school (and there is always a local high needs elementary school).

Don’t believe everything you see in the movies. I learned that lesson the hard way.

DSC_0529Abby lives and loves in the city of Atlanta. She has two hilarious children and a husband that doubles as her copy editor and biggest fan. If two in diapers and a full-time job teaching English at a local high school don’t keep her busy, you can find her blogging at accidentaldevotional. Abby loves all kinds of Girl Scout cookies, and carries a dream of one day writing a book about teaching in her heart

For more posts in the War Photographer series, please click here.

War Photographer: Liz Anderson

Liz is someone who is truly living an unorthodox life, and she makes it look quite fun. Dancer, thinker, killer ukulele-player: this girl is the whole package. Today I'm so excited for her words (couldn't we all use a little more poetry in our lives?) and I'm inspired again by the privilege of being a witness to the stories inside.  Making Space

i want people

to share

their stories

to find

their voices

to sing

what they love


what they need


what they've lived

so we remember

we are not alone.


some people find ways to do this

on their own

their story burns inside them

and bursts free


but more often

i find

that people stay silent

they think

i'm not talented





they think no one


enough to listen.


and listening

to someone's life

over a cuppa

is an honor


finding ways

to tell their stories


is an privilege.


but best

fiercest joy

is helping people discover

how to share their own stories

making space

for them to realize

other people want to hear too

revealing they do

in fact

have something to say


maybe their older brother

told them they couldn't sing

they believed that all these years

their first grade teacher told them

honey, the sky isn't red, that's wrong

maybe they never had a first grade teacher to begin with

maybe something in the past


silenced them.


but if a space is


a nudge

to try

an encouragement

to explore

a partner

to experiment with

(is that a bud i see?

then i try to get out of the way

the hardest part)


let's write a song together for your ukulele

with those four chords you know

what should it be about? spring? squirrels? both? excellent.

here's how easy it is to make a blog post

of course you should try making a dinosaur out of cardboard


hand the kids the camera and watch

their delight as their friends magically appear

teach them how that button works

ask why that photo's their favorite

blow up their best pictures to hang

in the cafe down the road

step back and watch their faces light up


witnessing revelation


happen in other people


a piece of themselves

they didn't know existed

they didn't dream was



provide a platform to broadcast from

set them loose

and learn to see through their eyes

see what their story has to say about

how we are not alone.


From Liz: this past October we had a songwriting workshop for our girl's holiday club. We taught them to play through four chords of a pop chorus they knew, the girls wrote verses and a rap bridge to go with it, and we gave a teeny tiny concert.  Here are some lyrics from girls ages 11-14:

You go to work so early in the morning on the tube

Your misery, I hear no breath, no words of life in you

Are you afraid to break a laugh, would that be breaking all the rules?

So come on, come on


In the community everyone should be caring and kind

So they won’t end up lonely – that’s the problem in my mind

It’s not right when you’re upset or bad or rude, you should be kind

So come on, come on


There’s no point of you wasting your time

Dealing with drugs and dealing with crime

You think all this stuff is gonna make it right

But hey, it just makes a bigger fight


It’s wrong, it affects other people

All this rubbish, why you wanna do it for?

You’re walking down the streets, what do you see?

You gotta open up your eyes, well what’s it gonna be?




ImageLiz Digitale Anderson wants to know what makes you feel most fiercely alive (tell her @lizdances). Her two current life philosophies are "If you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance" and "I could be wrong." But she's pretty sure she's not wrong about your ability to sing and/or dance, and if you were willing to flail around and experiment for five minutes together we could find out. She's married to a ninja photographer named Peter (who wrote earlier for the series here) and they live in London and blog about it here (www.fiercelyalive.com/blog).

For more posts in the War Photographer series, click here

Waka Waka

The first time I saw the music video for Shakira's World Cup 2010 song, I grew teary without even really knowing why. I went on to use it in many of my ESL classes, usually playing it during our end-of-term class party, where people from Asia, Africa and Latin America were bound together in their love for the song (and soccer and beautiful women shaking what the good Lord gave them). We ate sambusas and cake and lukewarm orange soda, and we celebrated our small victories of grammar and friendship, all while Shakira danced in the background. I am the student now, taking a Somali language class in my new city. I hear the song in the hallways of the elementary school where my little community education class meets. The janitors have the same rotation of songs every week--mostly latin pop songs and love ballads. When Shakira comes on, everyone in my class gets silent. My teacher, a young Somali man, talks wistfully about football, which turns into conversations about politics and Africa in general. I am reminded of how important all these things are, how identity is a fragile thing, especially in our fractured world.

The song still makes me cry, every time I hear it (and especially if I watch the video). I can't really explain it. The shots of soccer victories and defeats, the people dancing from every tribe and nation, the repeated refrain "this time for Africa" being hailed as a joyous, prophetic truth. It's an infectious song, celebrating a country who more often than not gets nothing but bad press in my world: a place of orphans and AIDS and crisis and corruption. A place where we send teams of people for weeks at a time, a place in constant need of outside saviors, mysterious and unfathomable, mired in troubles.

But this is only a part of the story. In the singing and dancing of the video I find so much articulated that I see every day: the men in the Somali coffee shops, huddled around the TVs, catching the latest soccer game. My Sudanese brother-in-law, reading the news in Arabic every day, his watchful eye ever on the politics of Africa. The women who blast tinny African music from their cell phones as they cook fish and rice and bread for me, the Somali teenager who knows more about the Kenyan president than I will ever hope to. I see it, every day, in my city of immigrants, a people in a sort of exile I can never imagine. Every day, millions around the world, are thinking the same thought to themselves: when will it be time for Africa?

Shakira, unlikely war photographer. You captured what so many of us already believe, even if we never knew how to say. Of course it's time for Africa. It always was. The thought is so joyous and heartbreaking, the struggles so sharp and the continent so grand, I can't help but join in.


For like all my friends, I believe it: this time for Africa.





War Photographer: Fritz Liedtke

I am honored to have my friend (and world renowned photographer!) Fritz share with us today. Fritz and his lovely family attend our home church back in Portland and I have always been impressed by his deep commitments to art and creativity and his even deeper commitment to Christ. This man takes some amazing pictures (seriously, check out these--the most beautiful freckle pictures you will ever see) and, as it turns out, he can also write. This is a thoughtful, extremely practical post that will stay with me for a long time.   




Skeletons in the Closet

Whether we recognize it or not, we all know people who have struggled with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Most often, their struggle is a secret. They have, as it were, a skeleton in the closet.

I spent several years interviewing and photographing approximately 100 people with eating disorders, culminating in the series Skeleton in the Closet. (View the work at www.skeletoningthecloset.net.) This body of work is about normal people, who sat down with me over coffee, and poured out their secrets: abuse, neglect, insecurity, cruel and thoughtless words, terrible things they’d done to their bodies and families, the results, the healing process, the enduring ache within. They told me, a complete stranger, things they had told no one else. I was their confessor, their confidant, their priest.

In the end, anorexia and bulimia are not about numbers or statistics. They are about individual people, each one with a name and a face and a home, struggling for control over their bodies and minds and lives. Their stories include their families, friends, counselors, classmates, their spouses and children. These are the stories I was there to tell, stories of normal people like you and me.

I attended college right out of high school. During that first winter away from home, I began to find myself depressed, lonely, and in poor physical condition. This went on for some time until, finally, at the college nurse’s suggestion, I went to talk with someone in the counseling center. The gentleman there was gracious, asked good questions, and listened well. Over the course of the next few months, we were able to unravel the tangle of my thinking, and along the way discovered that, among other things, I was anorexic.

That word hit hard. I had never really thought about anorexia, and certainly never thought of myself as someone susceptible to it. I had assumed that eating disorders were for women who didn’t like their appearance. With some research, however, I discovered that anorexia is more about issues of control, which did apply to me. I was a quiet, intelligent achiever, and I didn’t want anything to get in my way—least of all food and thoughts of food. While I only dealt with this issue for a year, early on in life, many people struggle with it for the rest of their lives.

The people I worked with were in all stages of their struggle: deep in the middle of it, thin and gaunt; on the upswing, finding healing; on the other side, working to maintain a healthy perspective years after their darkest days were past. My goal was simply to tell their stories, as clearly as I could. I took extensive notes and transcriptions as we talked, and collaborating with them to create an image that illustrated a singular piece of their story.

In retrospect, I see several things that helped me accomplish this goal, and create a body of work that viewers find moving, honest, and powerful.

1. I’d been there. When the people I collaborated with understood that I myself had also gone through something similar, it helped build rapport and trust. They knew I could understand (at least to some degree) their struggle. It helped them feel free to be open and honest.

2. I respected them as real people. They could tell by my manner and openness that I wasn’t there to exploit them, to steal their story from them for my own profit. I was, in effect, there to help them tell their own story. I asked for their input with my ideas. If at any point they decided they no longer wanted to participate, I respected their wishes--even after I’d completed the work and showed it to them.

3. I asked good questions, and listened. You’d be surprised what people will tell you if you ask a good question, and then keep your mouth shut. These were people who offered to participate in the project because they wanted to share their story. I tried as much as possible to be a faithful conduit.

4. I was there as an artist, not a savior. I didn’t start out on this project to help anyone. I started the project because I couldn’t shake my own memory of dealing with an eating disorder, and I wanted to explore that as an artist. I wanted to make something beautiful out of something painful, to redeem it. When in the end I discovered that both my subjects and my audience benefitted from the work, that was a bonus.


I find these to be good working guidelines for any type of documentary project I take on. When I’m photographing stories that have nothing to do with my personal history (I’ve never been a coffee producer in a third world country, or had extensive freckles...), research goes a long way toward establishing credibility and building rapport.

So I bring research, respect, empathy, and my artistic eye to every project. When people see that I’m a real person, and treat them as a real person, doors open, and I walk through them. Secrets are revealed. Magic happens.





For more images from the series, please go to www.skeletoninthecloset.net


Fritz Profile PicFritz began photographing as a teen, carrying his Kodak 110 Instamatic around on a US tour with his father at age 14, in their little blue Datsun B210. Twenty-five years later, he continues to explore the world, camera in hand.

In the intervening years, Fritz acquired a BFA in Photography; won numerous awards and grants for his work; enjoyed artist residencies in various places; had photographs published, collected, and shown in galleries and museums; wrote articles and essays for various publications; lectured and taught workshops on photography and the artistic life; and balanced both commercial and fine art practices. He also loves to travel. He is constantly looking for new ways to approach the world through art.

Portland, Oregon is his home, along with his wife and daughter and their bright orange house.

View Fritz's fine art photography atwww.fritzliedtke.com, and his commercial photography at www.fritzphotographic.com.










For more in the War Photographers series, please click here.

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