D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Tag: 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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: 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!

Charge!

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.

 

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: 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.   

alex

 

 

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.

amanda

anje

doris

 

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.

War Photographer: Exile Fertility

Becca from Exile Fertility is a kindred spirit I have never met (but randomly, she knows my sister and brother-in-law from her time in Sudan). I love everything this girl has to say--her writing is slow, methodical, and transcends the internet hullabaloo. I feel like we live in somewhat similar situations, and I love her  reflections on living in beautiful and broken places. I am so excited about this post (plus, I also grew up reading the book she mentions--kingdom nerds ftw!)

Wheel India 2

Just about every night, Teegan would read to us from her favourite kids book series, "Tales of the Kingdom" by David and Karen Mains. Some of us crocheted baby hats or lay semi-comatose as the days events fell from our weary bodies, some of us dipped cookies into hot tea under the ceiling fan. We gathered on a few beds in the muggy Indian evening and listened to the allegorical stories. I honestly can't remember many details but one line got written on my heart: one of the characters, some kind of watch person over the city would ask the other, "How goes the world?" And his friend would always answer, "The world goes not well, but the kingdom comes."

We worked in a government maternity hospital that served the poorest women in our South Indian state. There was an unimaginable collision of beauty and hellishness every single day - on one metal table a woman welcomes her baby boy, healthy and screaming, into her arms; next to her a baby girl is stillborn, her mother weeps, her own body with a serious infection. She had laboured in the village for three days before coming to the hospital. She hadn’t known to get help sooner. Extraordinary life burst forth in the seventy or so births that happened every day. And there was darkness, women suffering without partners or mothers supporting, most labours sped up (and painfully intensified) with oxytocin just to handle the volume of women coming to give birth. Fear and threats were commonplace - exhausted and overwhelmed young doctors working 24+ hour shifts and the lines of women just kept coming. We would show up every day to serve, to love, to rub backs and hold hands, monitor vitals and pray with everything we had in us for God's kingdom to arrive like these babies, into our hands waiting. I wanted to judge the doctors for shouting at women, the hospital cleaners for taking bribes from families, the men for marrying women too young, judge the caste system for creating mothers in such poverty, judge the practice of dowry for causing new moms to fear birthing baby girls. I wanted to judge because I was angry, I was tired, and I didn't understand. I didn't know what else to do, and it felt like something at least, my best defense against the threatening hopelessness and apathy of my own heart.

We pray "your kingdom come, your will be done" because it’s not happening yet. When you’ve caught God’s vision for shalom on earth, you can’t help but see the need for change, for justice. We are a passionate people. We want to protect, to champion, Robin Hood-esque in the lines we draw, how we categorize people into good and bad, oppressed and oppressor, us and them with God always on our side. Simple explanations with issues clearly labeled make our communication easier, readers know where to give the money, at whom to be angry and what prayers to pray. This is the problem, here’s the solution, the victim, the villain, the hero. We write music and emails, we blog and tumble and tweet because if there's any time in history when we have a sphere of influence, it is now. But we cannot only be storytellers watching from the sidelines or holding signs with clever slogans.

We have to be peacemakers.

My street: beautiful and brutal
My street: beautiful and brutal

In communicating what I see and experience, whether in my neighbourhood or in nations whose dusty roads I’ve walked, I’m slowly learning this: mercy triumphs over judgement. This is not puppy-loving or cry at the end of a sappy movie kind of mercy that our culture wants to belittle it to. True mercy is the love that covers the process of biblical justice, which is people getting what they need, mountains being brought low, valleys raised up. The prophet Micah exhorts us to do it. Do Justice. But we must Love Mercy.

Mercy holds up a mirror to our own depravity and the grace-scars etched into our skin. It's the salvific presence of repentance, forgiveness, and compassion when we are seeking justice, where power is re-imagined and redeemed, not put into someone else's hands. Terry Velings writes in The Beatitude of Mercy: Love Watches Over Justice,

“Mercy is the very foundation of justice, such that without social mercy, our quest for social justice will always be misguided and thwarted”. We must practice discernment, differentiating between right and wrong actions, we must call out the evils of violence and exploitation for what they are. But mercy believes that no person or structure or nation is outside the redemptive reaches of Jesus’ blood. Not the exploited woman a block up my street looking for money, nor the lonely man looking for easy sex. Not the Dalit woman filled with fear in the labour room, nor the upper-caste doctor who verbally assaulted her during the birth. Not the parts of me that are filled with hopeful energy and action, nor the complacency, violence and selfishness that still has grips on my heart.

As a communicator (and who among us isn’t?) I can invite God’s baptism of mercy over my eyes. It's the mercy that literally changes the way we see, our lenses of judgement are free to fall. When we are in Christ, it’s a whole new world. Jesus said that when our eyes are full of light rather than darkness, so is our whole body. Our words, our songs, our blogs, our conversation, when covered by mercy will still cry out for justice, will still long for God's kingdom, will still groan with creation in agonizing labour - but we will prophesy the reconciliation of all things. Mercy will find beauty in the face of the enemy, will welcome them to the table; mercy will kneel and wash their feet. Mercy sees our own face in those we have previously labeled: the prostitute, the soccer mom, the creepy man, the tax collector, the Muslim, the Christian, the Burmese refugee, the angry doctor, weeping mother, the rapist, the soldier, the nun.

This mercy-infused language makes Archbishop Desmond Tutu's communication so contagious, that we're left with a sense that maybe another world really is possible. “Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” His prophetic voice cried out not only for justice, but for mercy and social healing. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created South Africa's long and brutal apartheid system, making space for confession, repentance, forgiveness. It’s this mercy that gave birth to a new nation rather than civil war, marked by mothers forgiving soldiers for the deaths of their children. There is truly no future without this subversive, costly mercy. This is the stuff that peace is made of. As I listen to my own children learning to speak I recognize my need for language, for new vocabulary, for words that announce kingdom come to every and all, even when the world goes not well. Language absent of judgement but filled with justice and mercy and hope. Language that makes space for peace.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

IMG_9187

Photos by my good friend Mat.

Becca spent five years working in mother-child healthcare in beautiful places like South Sudan, India and Nigeria.  She has dreams in women's health and education brewing but now spends her days chasing two toddlers around the post-industrial Australian neighbourhood she calls home.  She's American, married to an interesting and kind Canadian musician and they haven't had a full night's sleep since the babies came. They'll spend the next two months working on training and film projects in SE Asia.  She writes about non-violent parenting, grief, spirituality and justice at exilefertility.com while keeping a fairly messy, but welcoming, home.

War Photographer: K Mayfield

I am so thrilled to have my dear husband here today to talk about art, therapy, movies, and the importance of repentance over outrage. He has some good things to say. And he is the cutest. And the nicest. And the smartest. I married up, ya'll. I couldn't think of a good pseudonym for him, so feel free to give me your suggestions in the comments. 

I have had a strong desire to express our family’s experiences these past few years; our continual encounter with the Kingdom of God, how it turned everything upside down. But as it turns out, it’s really hard to do so without seeming preachy. So, gathering from the likes of some of my favorite artists like Why?Mewithoutyou, and Freud, I tend to write and see what comes out, hoping the adventures of my super-ego will meet yours along the way. Besides, metaphors work well as free-association techniques. Typically, rather than choosing a particular topic or theme, I write about my life in general to see what emerges. And hopefully, the Kingdom peeks through alongside lots of latent issues surround identity, vocation, etc.

I think that social justice is such a tricky subject to talk about; many  musicians who engage the topic walk a fine line between something artistic and three-point Sunday sermon on the topic. However, my greatest concern about justice themes in art is that rather than prophetically pointing the way to justice, it can create a false imitation of it.

I watched a movie a few years ago where George Clooney takes on a corporation, and throughout the movie I felt the weight of oppression that corporations can wield. But as the movie resolved, my anger dissipated. And of course it did; a major film company isn’t going to release a movie that actually motivates people to action against the system and culture which it benefits from. Documentaries be better or worse than the typical box-office affair. They can also be overwhelming, with a notable absence of resolution (and if you’re my wife, this means you find yourself sitting horrified, paralyzed and grieved at the end of the five hours or so of The Corporation). But watching these documentaries produces an emotional, if not physical response to what we have seen, and we can tend to focus on that--as though adding something to my Netflix queue has helped change the world.

It’s way easier to consume in order to feel that I am producing change. We are a very aware society, aware of what is wrong (sweat shops, global military presence, the flaws in the political system, the educational system, genetically modified foods, etc.). And in response, I will quickly pay to feel that I am on the side of social justice (e.g. Toms, Charity Water, Warby Parker, short term mission trips). And we will pay our artists to give us the experience of taking part in social justice simply through reading a book, listening to a song or watching a movie, as though experiencing that media is the same as responding to it.

There is a gap between seeing the problems in the world and responding to them. I think that gap is our discomfort with facing our own brokenness that contributes to the these existing systems that. I can call for change of a particular system, but until I face my own greed, racism and disproportionate priority of convenience and low prices over the human value, my wishes are hollow.

I recently came across an old article by psychologist and author Robert Coles in which he reviewed a 1967 documentary titled Titicut Follies, about the mental hospital attached to the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, where the criminally insane were housed and treated.

The film received fierce heat from the local authorities, even the superintendent who initially authorized the documentary, in hopes of receiving improved facilities. Coles points out that this was hardly the first exposé on the low standards in mental health institutions of the day, nor was Bridgewater anywhere close to the worst he had personally seen, as a psychologist. But what differed about this documentary was not the physical setting, but the relationships and humanity the viewer came into contact with. And, Coles argues, the most impactful part of the film is not the patients or the fragile, unsettled air of insanity, but the doctors and the professionals. He suggests that the way the doctors failed to see humanity in the patients, the way they labeled and categorized and withdrew these men from society is recognizably familiar urge that we ourselves experience. Coles points out that the difference between this film and others like it is that instead of being forced to look at a broken system, we are forced to look at our broken selves.

And this is why the filmmaker, at the time Coles wrote, had multiple civil and legal suits charged against him. Coles writes, “Titicut Follies is a brilliant work of art, and as such it will not go unnoticed, despite the opposition to it.  We are asked not to be outraged at others – a cheap and easily spent kind of emotion – but to look at ourselves, the rich and strong ones whose agents hurt the weak and maimed in the name of – what?” (p .25). Strangely, it was the implicit individual reflection rather than a systematic critique that really upset the powers that be.

Those of us who wish to share the stories of the oppressed often do so in order to encourage our audience to do justice and compassion in our world. But it is a thin line between kindling the desire for justice and satiating it. Does our audience leave with a feeling that they have already participated in social justice when they are simply enjoying a good, artful experience? Or are they challenged and empowered to make changes in their own lives -- and their own hearts? As artists, I believe we need to ask: through the way we tell stories, is there a way to not only confront evil systems, but to identify and indict the parts of us that are complicit with these systems?

The fact that Titicut Follies upset the powers that be demonstrates that the empire knows, as Cole says, outrage is a “cheap and easily spent emotion,” but internal reflection and response has the power to make real change in the world.

After some time facilitating group therapy, I’ve learned that anger is a paper tiger next to mourning. Yelling begets yelling, yet tears pave the way for reconciliation and change. Walter Bruggeman says it this way: “Tears break barriers like no harshness or anger. . . when one addresses numbness clearly, anger, abrasiveness and indignation as forms of address will drive the hurt deeper, add to the numbness . . . this denying and deceiving kind of numbness is broken only by the embrace of negativity, by the public articulation that we are fearful and ashamed of the future we have chosen”. I love the communal terminology here, which is particularly appropriate in such a global climate; we, at least in some way, have chosen for the world to be as it is today. Thus, anger is somewhat impotent, as it is only useful against others; sadness is a response to our own actions, the fruit of internal reflection.

And perhaps this is why, out of all the ways to be wronged, God often chooses adultery as a metaphor for our broken relationship with him. In an affair, anger is just the tip of an iceberg of deep mourning. Likewise, Bruggeman suggests that “Jesus wept” is one of the most powerful verses in the cannon. God isn’t angry at us, but he’s really sad about the world we’ve chosen.

As good war photographers, it seems our goal is to not only bring us to tears over the injustice against the least of these, but also the potent experience of weeping over the choices we have made in our own lives that lead to such circumstances -- and weeping over the ways in which our hearts still wish it so.

601380_10152602957695648_1255881302_nK Mayfield is married to D.L., and father to the cutest/most spirited child ever. He is a therapist with the heart of an artist (or is it the other way around?). You can find his music here. He is the best at growing beards. 

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

War Photographer: Harriet A. Long

I first met Harriet through Twitter--and I was stunned by the evocative, no-nonsense language of her writing. She is what I think of as someone who is in the trenches. She is someone I want to learn from. She is someone who is living it out, and is graciously sharing her prophetic voice with us today. She hails from Ireland, where she is no stranger to conflict--but she has an amazing, visionary view of what social change really means. Read along and find out what I mean.  

 

Since early December 2012 Belfast, Northern Ireland has been torn apart by the most disruptive and sustained violence and protests for over fifteen years.  This is a piece I wrote as a sequel to Under My Skin (first published on 6 January 2013) – these two essays had an extraordinary reaction around the world…

picture from a recent riot

 

What Could and Might Happen Next… (First published 13 January 2013)

 

We did an art project once that the young people were really proud of, got right into, got their hands and clothes covered in paint but we were told by ‘community leaders’ that we had used the wrong community artists and so the right ‘community artists’ painted out our young people’s work. We worked really hard on a film project with a young guy playing the starring role, a guy that one of my volunteers had to hold back from punching his sister several times one night for making faces at him, he was so emotional during the filming, it was cathartic, he was so proud of himself and wanted his mum to see it. A few days later the family were told to leave the area because the mum was dating the wrong guy. He was gone, and so was the time and exhaustion that had been put into him over weeks and months.

  We took the young people to the Abbey Centre for a shopping outing – they said it was crap, because it wasn’t their own shopping centre. We took them to an ice cream shop and they laughed because all the flavour names were so weird or stupid. We took them to the Silent Valley and they kept asking where the shops were.

  The years of my early working life showed me what I had in terms of a stable family background, some education and some skills in stark comparison to others, but it also showed me the assumptions I made, the ignorance I had and the pity I carried that took me somewhere that it wasn’t wanted. I learned in the Lower Newtownards Road about justice, I learnt that real transformation would only work if some of this strength, privilege, stability and safety was shared and/or given away. I felt then as I feel now, listening to helicopters overhead and driving through scorch marks on the road, that there are not many leaders in that community who understand, share that vision or have an understanding of what that really looks like. For too long in my view, when violence bubbles and erupts this small corner of the world is forced (by what I am not sure) to turn to its politicians, ex-prisoners and police in positions of leadership who carry a narrative of the past and often have no empathetic insight into the social needs of whole communities to flourish regardless of flag colours.

  We will not flourish if we seek to maintain our strength, we will not flourish if we seek to hold our privilege and we will not flourish if we seek to protect our own safety to the detriment of others. We must use our strength, privilege and safety to help others become strong, privileged and safe. When political and community leaders use the language of persecution, loss, corrosion and trampling when it comes to culture and identity, this will translate as a threat to communities who have been taught to respond to this threat with violence. I found that this was the only dominant language and response passed down, incentivized and sustained by symbol, ritual and fear.

I walked away and signed up to be a foster carer, I couldn’t bear the two hour slots with the unsettled, unknown and chaotic children and young people any more. On the one hand I left something destructive and on the other hand I invited destruction (or the potential for it) into my home and my family. However, I found all those poverty and violence issues were redundant with the small child who needs a regular bedtime, stories read, songs sang, nutritious food, hands held and three layers of clothing. With the teenager who is told to stay in and not walk the streets to see/find friends or the eight year old who needs a blast of fresh air to resolve his ‘ADHD’ problems. Fostering isn’t for everyone, but it’s the perfect fit for us. It is these therapeutic and attaching activities and relationships that I find to be missing in the peace building discussions we are hearing in the media over these past days and weeks, I wince when I hear that all these matters can only be resolved through ‘democracy’ and the ‘political process’. This is a community that struggles to listen, to communicate without getting angry, that is being told it is under threat, that has been taught what to do when threatened, that has experienced not only the trauma of community violence but also the multiple traumas of family breakdown, mental ill health and multi-generational unemployment (to name but a few).

  How does this community relate to, let alone engage with ‘democracy’ and the ‘political process’?

I’d like to take the politicians away on a listening course, I’d like to see them sitting in their jeans reading stories to families, supporting couples at domestic violence mediation sessions. I’d like the community leaders and ex-prisoners to do an intensive attachment and loss course, I’d like to put a pin in words like ‘culture’ ‘war’ ‘violence’ ‘flag’ and ‘loyalism’, acknowledging them as a backdrop but have them sit with someone who has a mental illness as they rummage through their one hundred pieces of paper to find their address. I’d like to see teachers, counsellors and social workers being consulted on the ‘peace process’.

  For those on the outside, those who are judging, who are angry, who are upset or feeling powerless? The last thing we want is for communities whose violence is on the surface to interpret these questions as an attitude of ‘We are not like you. We are not the problem. We have nothing to learn from you. You’re the problem and you can fix it by being like us.’ What the ‘peaceful’ can and should learn from violence and fires on the streets of Belfast is that where there is poverty and violence then it is a mirror showing us our ugliness as a broader community, if one is hurting amongst us then we all are. In years to come our children and grandchildren will look to us and ask us what we did. It may not be Burma, it may not be India, it may not be the Civil Rights movement in the US but something is making it possible for violence to be prepared and executed on the street a mile from our houses and we are linked into the systems and structures that sustain this possibility.

  It’s really isn’t money that will make us flourish here, it is relationships. It really isn’t politics or dare I say democracy that will bring peace here – it is the quiet dignity that should be bestowed on every single human being around us – regardless of flag colour.

What happens next…?

 

Links to the full pieces here:

Under My Skin: http://harrietlong.wordpress.com/2013/01/06/under-my-skin-some-of-my-me-the-lower-newtownards-road-story/

What Could And Might Happen Next…:

http://harrietlong.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/what-could-might-happen-next/

iCbh9Harriet Long has lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland for nine years.  She spent three years living and working as a youth and community worker in the inner city community of East Belfast, one of the top five most deprived wards in Northern Ireland.  A Loyalist (Protestant) community, led by politics loyal to the British crown, policed by both legal and illegal organisations.   She now works for a small regional charity supporting victims of crime.  She remains closely involved with the community of East Belfast, continues to worship and support the community outreach there, living half a mile up the road.  She is a passionate body theologian, writer and blogger and a busy foster carer.  She’s also keen on films, china, cake and hikes. She writes here and can be found on twitter here

 

 

 

 

 

 

To read the rest in the War Photographer series, click here.

War Photographer: Rachel Pieh Jones

True Confessions: I have a girl crush on Rachel Pieh Jones. She lives in Djibouti! She is fluent in several languages! She has written for the NYTimes! She has really amazing hair! I could go on and on, really. But what I love most about her is her desire to be real at all times in her writing. She is one of the best examples I have seen of writing with your entire audience in mind (and trust me, she has a very diverse readership). And that stems simply from her entering into relationships with people--they will never simply be props for her. I'm beyond thrilled to have her wise words here with us today.

 

 

 

 

Bridges for the Brave

They're cool, interesting kids, and I want the reader to sense that, too. Because we can talk all we want about how corruption or indifference robs people of opportunity - of the promise our societies squander - but if we don't really grasp the intelligences of those who are being denied, we're not going to grasp the potential that's being lost. But a funny thing happens when you spend nearly four years at the bottom. You see them as people. You see how their stories, despite the details of filth and stink and crime, are really not so different from ours.” Katherine Boo

bridges2

I am in the proposal-writing stage of a book about Djibouti, Somali women, Muslims, and faith. This is dangerous and slightly terrifying because though I do have faith, which has evolved over ten years in Somalia and Djibouti, I am not Djiboutian or Somali or Muslim. And yet.

I am compelled to write. Because, like Boo says, after years living among people, you find out their stories are really not so different. I’m compelled to write their stories and my stories and the way they interact. Awkward, painful, life-giving, thrilling. Always in process.

Part of writing these stories is selfish. Writing helps decompress and life in this developing country overwhelms. If I don’t take pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, the weight and emotions and confusions cloud my ability to see and hear. A mentor used to say, “Thoughts untangle themselves over the lips and through the fingertips.” In life outside writing, my words emerge in Somali or French and tangle themselves so badly in the speaking that to untangle them, I turn to the written word.

But also, this compelling comes from what I hear in Djibouti and what I hear in Minnesota, from what I see on bookshelves. Or don’t see on bookshelves.

Book covers of burka-clad women in shadows or only the slit of eyes in a black cloth. Other. Them. Those people. I see an Iranian woman in a suburban post office and no one speaks to her. I see an American in Djibouti and children throw stones at her. I see a Somali cashier at Target in Minneapolis working on Eid and she cries when I say, “Eid Mubarak,” because few non-Muslims know it is her high holiday. I hear Christians at the French Protestant church in Djibouti reciting the Lord's prayer at the same time as the call to prayer rings out from the mosque across the street.

I see people living separate, divided lives, sometimes out of fear and sometimes out of ignorance. Often out of simply not giving a damn. But we need to give a damn because the lives of Muslims and Christians, Somalis and Libyans and Pakistanis and Palestinians and Americans are not separate anymore. "Those people" are now neighbors, the "other" is a classmate or a coworker.

Western photography, movies, and books often present Muslim women as one of two types: the prisoner or the escapee. Either a Muslim woman is trapped in her culture and religion by an abusive husband, oppressive politics, and poverty (Jean Sasson’s Princess series) or a Muslim woman has “escaped” to the supposedly enlightened West (Ayan Hirsi’s Infidel). Rarely in this ‘enlightened’ art is there a picture of the Muslim woman as a flawed (read normal) human being, pursuing an education or career, dealing with family issues, struggling to understand her place in life, and who is content in her religion, not abused, pleased with her modesty, and has no thoughts about fleeing to the west.

This is one of the stories I aim to write. I am not (cringe) a ‘voice for the voiceless.’ Muslim women have powerful voices and are being increasingly heard from around the world. I don’t imagine I have everything right when I explore this world with my friends. This is why I invite Muslims to help me edit, talk me through difficulties, lend me books, straighten my thinking. And this is why I feel led to use my own voice, to be present in the stories I write. So it is as clear as possible that these words are filtering through my own peculiar experiences and perspective.

As I grow in writing, experience, courage, knowledge, intimacy, I dream of writing like Katherine Boo – self completely absent, the portrait of humanity presented with clarity and compassion but not pity or false heroism. I have not reached that level of wisdom or self-perception – to see when the story is stronger without me in it.

I’m not there yet but I do have a vision for my current way of writing. I see this kind of writing, my war photography, as a bridge for the brave. For those who recognize the need to move beyond mere dialogue with the Other into interaction and engagement, into meaningful and mutual relationship.

The Midwestern-evangelical-Jesus-loving-American in me can relate when people are afraid of the Iranian woman in the post office, or intimidated, or could care less. The decade-in-the-Horn-of-Africa, Somali-speaking, Islam-studying, Muslim-women-befriending-and-coworking part of me can relate to the scarf (wear it sometimes), the Quran (read it through in three languages), issues of shame and honor (have experienced both).

And for now I believe there is value in being present. For better or worse, it is often easier to hear from, trust, and relate to someone like you. My writing is an effort to go first, with the desire that some will join. I write so the people I am like can relate and not be so isolated and so the people I am not like can hear how it feels to be ‘outside.’ When someone needs to admit to feeling left out while Muslim women go to pray, I write it. When someone needs to experience the difficulty and spirituality of the Ramadan fast, I write it. And then confess to cheating on it.

These words are a bridge. I see the people (the glory and the gory) with whom I love and cry and sweat and laugh here in Djibouti and I see the people who live where I used to live and think what I used to think and fear what I used to fear and I pray the stories help them cross this great divide. I pray people will read and learn and look deeper than the words. That they will lay down prejudice and fear, take up courage and humility, and cross over to the other side with hands extended.

War photographers and war storytellers weave cables and throw down cement and construct archways and erect bridges for the brave. The question lingering behind every well-crafted, unsentimental, and true story, the question offered to all who will gaze with gravity, is: Will you cross?

Blog: Djibouti Jones, Twitter: @RachelPiehJones, Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the War Photographer series, just click on the category by the top of the post.

War Photographer: J.R. Goudeau

J.R. is the coolest. I could gush all day long about how smart and cool and driven this girl is. She starts companies that empower refugees, raises her girls, writes her doctoral dissertation on poetry (!), and she sends me care packages when I am sad and lonely. I love J.R. because she laughs at all the same things I do (how all our international friends adore Spicy Hot Cheetos, for example) and cries at all the same things too (refugees, orphan care, the marginalized). For me, meeting J.R. makes the internets worthwhile. She is my sister-from-another-mister, and I can't wait to squeeze her one day in real life. So read her killer post, and then head on over to her blog. You won't be sorry. 

Bishop and Lowell
image from the cover of Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Bishop and Lowell

How Free do I have the Right to Be?

The mid-twentieth century poet Elizabeth Bishop spent much of her adult life living in Brazil. Her partner and many of her friends were well-known Brazilian artists and elites; in many ways, she is the definitive translator of Brazilian poetry to this day. Her long-time best friend and pen pal Robert Lowell was also a poet and sometimes translator. The title of his book of French translations, Imitations, gives an idea of his values in translation. He translated poems in the same free-wheeling, anything-goes way he wrote about his life; he was part of the confessional movement in poetry, along with Sylvia Plath and other poets beloved by undergraduates everywhere.

Once he just put line breaks in his ex-wife’s actual letters and published them in a book. Understandably, she was pissed.

Lowell’s translations made Bishop really uncomfortable. After Imitations came out they had one of their very few arguments. As Bishop wrote Lowell in a rather tense letter, “I just can’t decide how ‘free’ one has the right to be with the poet’s intentions.”

Her concern about translating a poet’s intentions was ethical: she valued faithful translations that carefully matched, often literally, the word choices made by the original poems in Portuguese, Spanish, or other languages.

The problem with this, Lowell would have countered, would be on an artistic level—he may have changed the French poems significantly, but the end result was a beautiful poem in English. He valued aesthetics more than ethics in translation.

Their poetic argument might seem like the kind of stuff academics argue about without any sort of effect on real life (except for the undergraduates who I force to write papers about these poems). But they reveal a spectrum that is critically important for me on a practical level every day.

I have two jobs: I’m a grad student writing a dissertation on translation and poetry who teaches undergraduate English. I’m also the director of Hill Country Hill Tribers, a non-profit that works with Burmese refugee artisans in Austin.

Ray Noe weaving

In order to tell the background about the women and men who hand make earrings, scarves, bags, baby dolls, and other beautiful things, I “translate” their stories into narratives that are familiar to my audience. And in doing so, I hear the voices of the critical theorists and postcolonial scholars whose work I study in graduate school. For me what was an academic conversation, examining how writers translate poetry, turned into a very real question of what to write on my blog and in the online store and our artisan descriptions on our website.

I am constantly conflicted about how “free” I have the “right” to be.

These stories are not mine. I want to tell them in a way that is appealing (in order to sell the products my friends are making), aesthetically pleasing (because I want to be a good writer) and economically valuable (so someone is more likely to buy the scarf my friend has made) without objectifying my friends or using meaningless tropes and lingo (because they are people, not objects of pity or “the poor”).

I don’t want to reduce my friends into simply inspirational, Hallmark-card stereotypes.

These are complicated issues that I find myself wrestling with all the time. Like Bishop, I’m not sure I have one over-arching theory of how to do this. But I think it’s critical to lay out a framework from which I can at least begin to work.

The first thing I think we need to recognize is that there is violence in representing one group, language, text or people to another. As Anuradha Dingwaney says in Between Languages and Cultures, “The process of translation involved in making another culture comprehensible entails varying degrees of violence, especially when the culture being translated is constituted as that of the ‘other’” (4). We don’t always acknowledge the ripping act of violence that occurs when we tell stories in a way that “others” other people.

Any act of simplification is also an act of violence.

The expectations of the audience who is reading these representations, whether it be Hill Tribers’ customers or mission-board members or Facebook friends, affect the way we portray people. It is something I constantly resist—the desire to play up my friends’ poverty and their gratefulness and downplay the difficulties we have in relating to each other.

I have to recognize the conversation I’m entering and my own position of power within it. As Dingwaney continues, it is critical “to recognize that translations can be (and often are) tainted by power, time, and the vagaries of different cultural needs” (6). There are power relations when people talk about other people who are different from them. When the translator and audience are in a position of economic or cultural privilege, the power relationship is asymmetrical—skewed to the power.

It’s hard. And yet, translation is important. The representation of poverty is important. The telling of these stories is important. This struggle to be an effective, ethical, aesthetically-pleasing, economically-helpful translator war photographer is important.

I love the way Talal Asad puts it: “translation is not merely a matter of matching sentences in the abstract, but of learning to live another form of life and to speak another kind of language” (quoted by Dingwaney 7). The implications for me as a Christian of Asad’s argument for anthropologists, ethnographers and translators is remarkable: I need to learn to live another form of life and to speak another kind of language.

This means analyzing my own tropes, my own baggage, my own expectations, my own firmly-held beliefs. It means being aware of my privilege but not paralyzed by it. It means letting go of my own intentions and learning to listen hard and well. It means educating myself and educating my audience on the issues and values of the community I’m portraying.

Asad’s use of the gerund “learning” implies that this is an ongoing, never-ending, ever-changing process. I have certainly not arrived at a definitive solution about how and when and why to portray my refugee friends, much less other groups. Like Elizabeth Bishop, I have more questions than I have answers. I’m still not sure how free I should be in translating their stories. 

I just know that I need to keep struggling with it. For me, the halting, hesitant act of translation is part of the new language I’m learning. This place between cultures is the new form of life I’m learning to live.

J. R. Goudeau is the Executive Director and co-founder of Hill Country Hill Tribers, as well as a grad student in English literature. When she’s supposed to be working on her dissertation, she can usually be found blogging about books, babies and Burmese refugees at loveiswhatyoudo.wordpress.com.

The Kingdom

This is an experiment, of sorts. Can you watch this video by Eliot Rausch and tell me what you think? Because it killed me dead. And I want to know if it's just me, or if other people get the wind knocked out of them by the mix of miracles and catastrophes that make up this world. In our community here we talk about 2 Corinthians 6:10, how we are sorrowful yet always rejoicing. Do you feel it this morning? It snowed yesterday, and I took it as a sign. As we walk into our days we are finding out: people everywhere are hungry for the signs of the kingdom coming. I see it, every day. Do you?

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/17174656]

 

 

 

 

 

Note: I think I will have to post little excerpts, poems, and videos on Mondays that go along with my theme of War Photographers. There is just too much goodness to share. Watch out for another killer guest post on Thursday. 

War Photographer: Melissa Gutierrez

I just recently discovered Melissa Gutierrez, and boy do I like her. In fact, the "About Me" section of her blog reads like one of the most elegant soliloquies on what it means to help others. Here's a little tidbit, in her own words:

I’m one of those young suburban twenty-somethings, so I’m in this process of what I think is “growing up,” and I often think that that’s unique (since I’m the only one on the planet who seems to be mysteriously changing, of course), and that I’m entitled to some amount of sarcastic little quip-complaints about it. It’s totally valid, sure, but I keep boring myself. And if there’s one thing I have learned in creative writing graduate school it’s that if you’re boring yourself, you’re boring everybody else. And boring everybody else doesn’t get you very far if you’re trying to love other people all the time. Because love is exciting, people.

 She has one foot in academia and one foot solidly in the world; Melissa is bringing the kingdom with her wherever she has her pen and paper.  Thank you, Melissa, for bringing it here today. Ya'll can go check out her blog here

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The Storm in the Streets

I’ll tell you right away that I’m a different sort of War Photographer. My front lines are actually way in the back, and you know what, we have cushions and catering back here. I’m in graduate school studying English—I’m making a living off of talking about fairy tales, and I take classes in a place called the “Poetry Center.” Let me tell you, we’re not on anybody’s terror-target lists.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a battle. When it comes to sharing hard stories that aren’t our own, writers are the best there is. The walk-a-mile-in-her-shoes thing is our business, empathy and point-of-view our trade. They would give us bows and arrows (or at least millions and millions of dollars) if we weren’t so moody, or so frail. But we are, and they don’t, so we end up lurking around in corners, watching everybody else and reading everything we can get our paws on.

This past winter, I got my paws on my dad’s copy of Runner’s World magazine, in the upstairs bathroom magazine stack. Usually this is where I learn about the top ten energy-boosting foods or the best way to build to a 5-K while I relieve myself after a heavy Christmas dinner—but what I found in the January 2013 issue this time worked up my insides in a different way.

Last November, the New York City Marathon was canceled in light of Hurricane Sandy (which “ended” officially just six days before the scheduled race). So this January, Runner’s World ran (pun, yes, haha—do you think they’re bored of that at their office yet?) this twelve-page spread: a “2012 NYC Marathon Special Report” covering controversial questions surrounding the marathon and its cancellation, everything from “Should the Marathon Have Been Run?” to “Does Running Have a Blue-Collar Problem?” (spoiler alert: yes) to “Can the Race Make Peace with Staten Island?” These are all really good questions. I can tell they’re good because after they’ve been asked, I still have more.

Like, for example: how can Runner’s World print this article right after (we’re talking directly after; not even an ad separates the two) the 14-page cover story, a month-by-month guide entitled “New Year, New You!” involving subheadings like “Spring-Clean Your Gear” and “Rediscover Your Mojo”?

The easy answer is this: by putting it all into InDesign and printing 600,000+ copies and sending them all to homes and stores and newsstands. The hard answer is: “I don’t know.”

I don’t know why I keep being surprised that we ultimately care about ourselves first and most, that “New Year, New You!” takes up the entire front page but “After the Storm” gets relegated to the bottom corner, near the mailing label and the barcode. I do know that it ultimately doesn’t matter. Runner’s World has been around the block—they know what works and they know how to make and sell a good magazine. They’re not in trouble, here, for putting an underwear-y runner girl on the cover of their magazine; in fact, they’re actually pretty smart for sneaking in a bulk of humanitarian content in the pages underneath her lean, long, healthy flesh.

That Runner’s World asks these questions and opens this discussion in not just in a normal, runnerly-reflective way (i.e. the monthly “I’m A Runner” column on the last page) adds further complication. A particular tension brews in the post-Sandy conversation between NYC marathoners and NYC natives, because both groups are especially experienced in handling hard things. Runners are equipped with this cool metaphor for life: they understand what it means to really push through pain and reach a finish line. And New Yorkers? They had 9/11, and now this wet cold mess. There are different kinds of pain, sometimes bigger kinds, sometimes kinds so much more immediate. With so many of us in such a small space, how can we come to know which pains take preference and precedence?

This was the question for NYC, and it’s a question for the world. At first it seems silly to compare running 26.2 miles for fun to something like the Israeli-Palestine conflict—until you remember that the guy that the marathon was named after was fighting in a war. And what is war but a storm of hearts and grit and bodies? I’ll make the stretch and compare the Sandy/NYC Marathon outrage to the Jews and PLO, though, because the reason that an article like “The Storm (And Everything After)” is happening at all is because two very different people share a space. This twelve-page spread in Runner’s World is about, ultimately, the actual streets of NYC—the pavement and the asphalt and every inch of land beneath—and the question of what to do when the feet that walk upon that territory disagree.

In that sense it’s appropriate to start another war, to put “The Storm” article right next to “New Year, New You!”: to make these ideas share a space. This encourages me because the people receiving this information are obviously in good enough standing (money-wise and health-wise, as I’m assuming the sort of demographic that would buy a running magazine is) to actually do something about something like Hurricane Sandy. What better place to put an article like this than with an audience that understands the power of moving and making physical improvements?

So I guess it makes some sense to put the Stormy Un-Marathon article after the Make Yourself Better one. When you take care of yourself, you can better take care of other people. Or, you can take care of other people while you’re taking care of yourself, and vice versa. Which is what, I learned as I read page 76 of the January 2013 Runner’s World in the bathroom on Christmas day, some of the NYC un-marathoners actually did.

In the sub-section “Were All Marathoners Self-Absorbed?”, Amby Burfoot (winner of the ’68 Boston Marathon and RW editor) doesn’t get around to answering his title question. Instead he talks about ways that the runners—who’d already booked tickets to and hotels in NYC from places all over America and the world—decided to use their stay now that the run had been called off: “Many were able to put their well-trained muscles and pent-up energy to good use, removing heavy, damaged furniture and wet debris from devastated homes,” he writes. This, I think, is brilliant. What do you do in a high-tension space? How do you respond to pain? How do you help make space for healing? Use what you are and what you have for others.

So for the NYC un-runners, their able-bodied bodies. And Runner’s World, the pages of their magazine. And me, my pen and laptop keyboard. But no matter how much I write, or how much anybody runs, or how many pages of articles like this RW publishes, the conflicts and the questions will never ever cease. This is earth and it is spinning: there is always weather, and there are always different kinds of people trying to take shelter in the same small space. The storms will keep on coming—but there will always be an eye, so long as there are lots of other “I”s trying to care about themselves and others. So long as there is us here trying to share.

War Photographers is a series on how we share the hard stories (that might not necessarily be our own). Look for more installments every Thursday for the foreseeable future!

War Photographer: Ed Cyzewski

War Photographers is a curated mix of stories from people working on the front lines: how do we share the hard stories that aren't our own? To learn more about the series, click here.  

Today we get to hear from Ed Cyzewski, famous to many in the blog-world. He himself would say it wasn't all that radical to feature the voices of women in ministry on his highly succesful blog, but the truth is that he is one of the few evangelical men who are outspoken in their appreciation for diversity in dialogue. I have always loved how Ed constantly uses his "platform" (again--a word he hates) to let others speak. Today he writes a bit about a world that many of us no nothing of, yet contributes to the broken stories of many. I appreciate his honesty in detailing the way we choose to write off, or ignore, that which we don't understand.

 

 

What I Saw in an Inmate’s Eyes

What chance would you give a middle-aged African American man who has been imprisoned five times and is about to be released again?

I used to write this type of guy off. I mean, he just can’t get his act together. At least we’ve got a prison to keep him off the streets.

Stan changed my perspective. I met him while volunteering for an Alpha course in a prison.

All of the younger inmates were drawn to him. He shared advice, encouragement, and whatever lessons he had learned. He wasn’t proud or arrogant. In a prison culture where you need to act tough and together, he was the odd man out with his humility and compassion for others.

How did this guy end up in prison five times already?

Stan and a small band of inmates regularly joined me to pray for about 20 minutes at the end of each Alpha session. I quickly learned their stories.

Abuse and neglect from their parents started things out. Then impoverished neighborhoods with few opportunities for success took over. With no mentors and no visible opportunities for work, they turned to drugs and alcohol. Relationships with family members and friends were already under tremendous strain, but substance abuse made things worse.

By the time these men broke the law, they had been broken in so many ways. Prison only served to break them further with the extreme hostility and tension among the inmates and guards.

Where does someone go to pick up the pieces? If you don’t have a stable family to return to, you’re going to return to the same old neighborhood where all of the same demons are still haunting you.

I can’t do justice to the stories of these inmates, but I want to tell you about something I saw as we prayed.

I saw men with fear in their eyes. They wanted to make it. They wanted to get their lives in order. They knew the odds were stacked against them and that failure is almost inevitable.

At least two men said it bluntly, “I’m afraid of being released. I’ve got nowhere to go, and I’m afraid I’ll just get into trouble again.”

They were specific with their prayer requests. They knew what would trip them up.

As we sat down to pray in our battered folding chairs in a dirty all purpose room lined with old televisions and rusted folding tables, I felt the weight of their past, the shame of their present, and the despair of their future.

These men came to God praying that God would save them from themselves, helping them become better people who stopped inflicting pain on others. For all that I know about God’s salvation, I’ve also never faced something quite so daunting as what these men carried with them.

Make no mistake, there are some horrible people in prison, people who delight in the power of causing others suffering. Some are mentally ill. Others have been wounded first and learned that way of life. There is no excuse for violent crimes.

I just want you to see their eyes for a moment. I want you to see the pain and the fear. Their eyes don’t change the past for anyone, but they tell us a deeper, more complicated story. They show us that there are some trapped people who can’t find an escape hatch. If they could, they’d use it in a heartbeat.

I like prison ministry because it cuts through all of the grandstanding Christians are tempted to do. A guy in blue prison scrubs can comb his hair nice and wear a cool pair of sneakers or sport an impressive tattoo, but even a prisoner on top of the inmate pecking order is still in prison. You can’t act like you’ve got your act together for long—especially if you’re going to open yourself to the Holy Spirit.

While volunteering in that prison I never felt like I could write about it. I didn’t want these men to become a writing project. As I look back on them, I think of their struggles and uncertainty. I pray for them. The reality is that many of them will end up back in prison. Change can take time.

I don’t know how Stan’s story ended. I moved away and then the prison closed. But let me tell you what I hope...

During one of our last conversations, Stan shared his plan. He’d been in touch with a pastor, and the pastor and his church were going to help him find a job. Once he saved up enough money, he wanted to start his own business. His plans were far more detailed than anything I’ve ever done in my life. I’m sure he was one of the few inmates with a legal career path mapped out for his release.

I pray that Stan connected with that pastor.

I pray that this church helped Stan find a job.

I pray that Stan will launch his business someday.

These are wildly optimistic prayers that fly in the face of common sense. They make about as much sense as ordering your entire life around a man convicted and killed for treason 2,000 years ago.

 

 

Ed Cyzewski blogs at www.inamirrordimly.com where he shares imperfect and sometimes sarcastic thoughts about following Jesus. He is the co-author of Hazardous: Committing to the Cost of the Following Jesus and the author of Coffeehouse Theology. Find him on twitter: @edcyzewski and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EdCyzewskiWriter.

The Migrant Mother

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it. --Dorothea Lange (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).

dorothea-lange_migrant-mother-composite

The other day our car was broken down (again, again) and we walked to the free art museum which happened to be 1.3 miles away. No matter the snow, or the biting wind--we had bags full of snacks and a blanket to wrap around the toddler. As we walked through the streets, past now familiar sights--the corner where all the deals go down, the popular cigarette shop, the statue made of melted-down guns kitty-corner against the park where people still get shot--we eventually found a tree-lined park, and the majestic columns of the art museum. We wandered in, unsure of how we had found this haven of calm, order, and beauty.

Between chasing our daughter (under the stern eyes of the guards) and wandering the many rooms of ancient art, we finally made our way to my favorites: the photography section. There, I was struck by a high-quality print of a photo I have seen time and time again: Dorothea Lange's iconic Migrant Mother, shot in 1936 in Nipomo, California. The look in the mother's eyes, the way her children shun the camera--hair tangled, eyes never meeting our gaze--made me stop in my tracks and look long and hard.

I was gratified to read the above quote by Lange, which accompanied the photograph. The stories behind the photos are increasingly becoming more important to me. When she says there was "a sort of equality about it", I want to believe her. I do believe her. I think Lange knew what she was doing, that she herself had been changed by the landscape, the shifting nature of migrant work, the way it bound and enslaved families in a desperate struggle for survival.

I went home and did some research. I found another article, talking about the photo from a different angle--that of one of the children in the picture, the girl huddled to her mother's left. She talks of how ashamed they were of their situation, how they didn't want anyone to know it was them in the picture. She talks about how ultimately, the photo did and did not come to define her mother (who died in 1982 and whose gravesite reads Migrant Mother: A Legend of the strength of American motherhood.). When asked to describe her childhood, the girl in the picture sees a fuller perspective: "50% good times and 50% hard times."

That last bit struck me. When I see the photograph, all I see are the hard times: the people starving in the work camps, the way the depression settled like dust in the lines of your face, the strain such nomadic and unstable lives put on the children especially. What I don't see are the other times--the music they loved (yodeling, it turns out), their fierce bonds, the normal imaginative play of childhood. But now I do, and it makes the picture even more impactful, makes it less of an exotic mystery (something I read about in a Steinbeck novel, for instance) and brings it directly into focus with the lives of the people I live next to every day. Lives full of hardships, lives full of joy. Moments of desperation buoyed by gratefulness, sickness tempered by celebrations, always the hope that the next crop will come in, that next year will be better.

This is just me; I have no thoughts on what exactly Ms. Lange would have me feel about the photos she took that day--but I do know that they changed her. They also changed the lives of the family in the picture, and deeply connected with the rest of the country. And the world has not changed all that much; Les Miserables are still all around us, dreaming for a better future, working and fighting and dying for it. And so, pictures like Migrant Mother continue to speak to us, and hopefully draw us along to something more inspired than pity, stir in us a curiosity for relationship and a longing for the kingdom to be fulfilled.

I'd be curious to know of other pictures/art that have moved you in such a way that you needed to know the back story behind them. For more information on the thought behind this series, go here.

war photographers

I have been thinking a lot about how all I do here anymore is share videos, other people's writings, random thoughts. The truth is I knew my writing would have to change, would have to evolve as we continue our path ever downwards. For awhile, I had a secret blog (just for real-life friends and family), which I thought would help. But it didn't (plus, a secret blog is surprisingly hard to implement).

So this is our struggle. I am learning so much, and I want to share with everyone. This is a part of my personality, a part of how I was wired. But how much of what I am learning is tied to the lives of people, real flesh-and-blood and full of dignity people--people who you don't know? The responsibility to portray nuanced and appropriate stories is a heavy mantle to bear. It is easier to shrug it off, and to be silent.

A bigger issue might be my own steep learning curve. It is probably not the time for me to be spouting off any deep thoughts or proposed answers or solutions or diatribes or rants; I am still struggling to catch my footing, lest I crush the path or fall off altogether. This is a very good reason to keep quiet, I think.

A while ago, back in Portland, I was ranting about people taking pictures and using them to "raise awareness" (or money). This is a huge topic, I know, and I have some very big thoughts on it. And one of my friends quietly told me a story of a war photographer, and how he justified taking pictures of people in the aftermath (and in the midst of) truly horrifying situations. the photographer said something along the lines of how he felt confident that publishing these photos for the world was the right thing to do, as long as the best interest of his subjects was his intention. he said people knew, would look his lens square and straight, because they trusted that these pictures would move people, would bring the world closer to them and their reality. he got permission from them, from their eyes and their words (where language allowed). and he used his responsibility wisely, to show the truth of the situation.

Thank goodness I can't take a picture for the life of me (and it most surely would not be welcomed in my neighborhood, anyway). But I do like to write, and this is where I have been stumped: what is my role in all of this.

For the truth is that there is a war going on, all the time. Poverty in America is intense, complicated, fraught with both joys and casualties all the time. And by and large, we don't know about it, and would be fine with keeping it that way. In some ways I feel like we need a war photographer or two around here; but something tells me it would take a whole lifetime to earn the sort of trust necessary to share in the task of telling stories.

I am only two months in. For now, I can only share me. But even that has its problems. If I tell you that I have been terrified, several times since moving here, you would only see a small part of my life. If I told you of the difficulties, you might not get the whole picture. Already, in these short months, I have found myself asking questions and dealing with situations (most often: should I call the cops or not? ) that are pretty foreign to me. This is real, of course, but this is only a small part. Far more often I feel bored, or lonely, or tired, or blessed, or cheerful, or industrious, or crafty, or hungry. And on the flip-side, there is the blessing of being in this difficult place. I cannot even begin to process how to go writing about these miracles. For they aren't the ones I thought I was going to tell; it turns Christ wanted to heal me and change me, and draw me to himself.

There is the tension of being "in ministry". We tend to minimize, or maximize, our situations depending on the context. More often than not people working on the margins tend to the former, perhaps out of respect for their neighbors or a misguided attempt at holy stoicism. But bottling up feelings never did anybody any good; the field is littered with burn outs and drop outs who may have been saved had they spoken of their troubles long ago. This is just one conundrum after another, people.

So, let's wrestle through this. I have learned so much from war photographers, from biographies and stories of people living the kingdom out on the ground. If you know any good thoughts on how to best share our experiences in the margins, please share with all of us. Let's make this a conversation, shall we? 

The image comes from National Geographic and the story behind it is stunning. Go here to read it

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