D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Category: War Photographers

Jackie Pullinger: Go Write Your Own Books

I'm getting older. I'm due to celebrate my last year of my 20s, and so I am off for 24 hours in a hermitage--just me myself and Jesus for 24 long, silent, electricity-free hours. I know I'm getting older because this makes me positively giddy.  

But for my (early) Monday post I wanted to highlight a book that was extremely formative for me in my growing-up years: Chasing the Dragon by Jackie Pullinger. Pullinger was/is a missionary to Hong Kong, and her story is pretty incredible. In late 60s and 70s there was some pretty crazy stuff going on in that city--opium and heroin being readily available and the inner city being run by gangs. Pullinger lived a life of faith, all the way--she never had more than a few dollars on her, and she just started praying for addicts and watched them miraculously come off drugs with barely a pang of withdrawal. I am not doing justice to the story here, so I will just tell you to get a copy and read it for yourself. Old-school missionary biographies changed the course of my life; Jackie Pullinger is someone who instantly comes to mind as a woman of valor, or a spiritual midwife.

Here's a couple of excerpts from the updated edition of her book, which I thought pertinent to our discussion on this here blog. The first one comes from an additional chapter or two at the end, where she expounds on what happened in her city after she first published the book. Her descriptions of the short-termers who came in droves to see what she wrote about really impacted me:

 

Over the years we have had hundreds of short-termers who want to get the pictures immediately--if possible, on video--so they can show it to their home church and have an inspired evening. I have begged them to love the people and stay, just like Sai Di did of me 30 years ago. The disadvantage of short-term missions is a wrong perspective based on this generation's need for instant results.

The visitors leave and wonder why it does not work at home. They wonder why everything seems so easy in Hong Kong. At other times nothing goes right, even here. The man who prophesied last night beats up the helper the next morning, or the whole house runs away. Then the visitors leave disillusioned. "It's nothing like her book. We had a hard time." . . .

So the voyeurs leave. They have their video clips, but they never saw. It was either all too good or all too bad, and neither is accurate. We love our people whether they turn out well or not, and the successes do not vindicate the ministry nor do the disappointments nullify it. What is important is whether we have loved in a real way--not preached in an impassioned way from a pulpit.

 

BOOM! This is why I love me some Jackie. In the introduction for the new edition of the book she also brings it, in a different way:

Of course, Chasing the Dragon backfired on me. I had written it in the hope of recording history and inspiring hope. Having disposed of one decade, I had hoped to get on with life. Instead I was invited to retell the story over and over again, whereas I had meant that you, the reader, might see that the same God could impart His heart and His power in your city and write your own books . . .

So where can you find us today if you visit Hong Kong? Hopefully, in all the streets and blocks. We will probably be unnamed, for we care not to extend our work but rather His kingdom. There are many more adventures to be had.

There are many more battles to be fought. It would be such fun to be a part of them. So go! Write your own books. Go!

 

I love everything about this. This is the tension I am currently sitting in. I don't want to write books--I want to be living them. And I am.

 

I'm just going to sit in that for awhile. 24 hours, to be exact.

 

It should hardly be noted that I don't get money or anything if you buy and read anything I suggest. I just write about them cause they are awesome. 

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.

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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: Constance Dykhuizen

Constance is the real deal. I met her through my internet BFF, J.R. Goudeau. I am very impressed with Contance's blend of professionalism (she runs a philanthropical nonprofit) and grassroots, friendship-based advocacy (she is an ESL tutor, Burmese food enthusiast, and a great friend to Hill County Hill Tribers). I love what she writes here today, exploring both the tensions of writing about the poor when the poor are our friends, and the delicate realities of fundraising. I live in both of those worlds, and I needed to hear what Constance has to say.   

 

 

My Stories

 

 

"You say you care about the poor. Then tell me, what are their names?" Gustavo Gutiérrez

In my experience, living in community with the poor, having them as friends and sisters and brothers, I am better able to know how, when and even if to tell their stories. It’s not complete or perfect. Most of the times my desire is just to add noise to the conversation (but it’s my noise!) when instead I should have their rights and not just what I want people to know and feel about the poor in mind. If I am conflicted or struggle, I don’t post it. As bloggers, as fundraisers, as photographers, the impetus for our stories is twofold: they reflect how we view the world and they connect people to us and to our story’s subjects. There needs to be a clear definition between the two -- these are my opinions and these are the poor.

I try to tell the stories that edify, that celebrate, that cherish and share photos that do the same. My life is open to them and theirs to me. These stories help balance out the difficult truths, the times I wrestle with the ugliness of discrimination, injustice or violence. In my opinion, these realities must be written about with utmost care, sensitivity and humility – and without identifying details.

with Eddie, a Jamaican farmer and beekeeper with Mind Gardens

There are a few things that, if included in stories about the poor, make me cringe: income, disease status and sexual history. You would never never reveal your sister’s HIV status, your boss’s salary or your husband’s sexual past without explicit permission and purpose. Not on the Internet anyway. Especially with increased connectivity, putting a disease or a number on a face can exist forever. If the people you claim to love and serve are part of your life, you anticipate that embarrassment for them, you plan to continue to be in their lives and don’t want that label to appear when your other friends meet them or when they Google their name.

One thing I’ve found helpful is that I’m friends with my economically poor friends on Facebook and Instagram (cell phones are everywhere, people). Some are former sex workers; some are refugees, all dear friends. It helps me to consider carefully what I post or write about and (hopefully) keeps me from grandstanding on issues that have to do with their home countries or carelessly adjudicating issues they might be sensitive to. It keeps me accountable to them, holding them equal to my peers and my family. If anything, I try to weigh the privacy of the poor a little more because they are from cultures I cannot understand, because (if they are foreign) their language skills are not mine and I often misinterpret and because usually I have no idea what I’m talking about. Their stories are heavier, their burdens more difficult to carry, and me chatting about it casually, even with good intentions, will not help. If there are ideas I want to wrestle with personally, there is no reason to put faces and names on issues. I have to remind myself that the poor are not to be used as object lessons.

On the other hand, as fundraisers for programs that serve the poor, storytelling is a much more delicate task to navigate. You simply cannot know every person whose story you are telling, or even have a solid grasp on the larger narrative of poverty and its causes. I’m not sure how to do it 100% right, but I can sense when something has gone wrong. It seems to me that any international development program these days is as successful as their graphic designer. Beautiful websites and videos often tell very skewed, very traditional stories of white Westerners going to help people in the developing world, often set to soaring music. Some represent good work, great people and mutual service communities. Others represent people with expensive video equipment and no idea what they’re talking about.

We should challenge these campaigns and investigate, particularly before donating or signing on to advocate for an issue. When we fundraise or promote, we should do so with utmost respect. Get model releases for photographs. Ask nicely for an interview and you will most likely get it. But just because someone is a client of an NGO, that does not mean that they want or deserve to have their stories re-told or sold. It’s a fine line, but as a funder of nonprofits and a cynic, I am able to spot and instantly discredit a stock photo, a hollow story about a starving child or a promise to save a woman from sex trafficking for $5 a day. Can we just all please agree that there is no saving being done? That no one is being rescued by anything except God’s grace? Often organizations and campaigns promise to have the solutions, and they feel they have to compete for the dollars – I understand that -- but the poor sometimes get lost or disrespected in the process. No clear answer there, but just a lot of fretting on my part about how to do it right.

Lonnie Martin remarked on NPR while discussing the Emancipation Proclamation that it’s important to remember that “African Americans were agents in their own liberty.” In my head at the time I translated this point (sorry, Lonnie) to say the poor are agents in their own liberty, in their own lives, but they might not know it. Agency is something that I, as an American and an oldest child, take for granted. Amartya Sen would say that the inability to affect one’s situation is the distinguishing feature of poverty. I expect and demand the ability, freedom and even the right to act in and on my world. I tell the story of my life, often to no one in particular, on my blog, but I get to tell it. My goal of work with the poor and my accounts about them is for them to have agency in their own lives – for them to tell their own stories if and when they’re ready.

Learning to weave with Hill Country Hill Tribers

The difference between us bloggers/humanitarian photographers/fundraisers and war photographers is that we are not impartial observers in the fight – far from it. As Christians, God has called us to fight. We are the agents and we are giving agency to all God’s children, our brothers and sisters. There are times when action is so much more important than words, when friendship is more important than storytelling or even raising money. It’s not a panacea to say that personal relationships lead to respectful, non-conflicted stories, but I think the best thing I can hope to say in blogs, fundraising campaigns and Facebook postings is that these are my friends. These are the ways they’ve blessed, confounded and taught me. And I hope I’ve had some effect on them.

These are the stories of my life: not just esoteric or short-lived exercises in compassion, but the stories of the poor are my stories.

 

 

Constance is the director of JP's Peace Love & Happiness Foundation, and is a friend to many refugees within her own community. You can find her blog here, or follow her on twitter

 

 

For more posts in the series, click on the "War Photographers" category near the top of the post.

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.

Katherine Boo, Short-Term Missions, and the Earned Fact

“To me, becoming attached to a country involves pressing uncomfortable questions about justice and opportunity for the least powerful citizens. The better one knows those people, the greater compulsion to press.”

--Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers

 bookcover3d

I just finished Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a National Book Award Book of the year for 2012, and I am left astonished. This book might be a game changer for me, and for all of us caught up in wondering what it all means to be a writer/photographer/artist in an age of continued economic disparity, of violence and suffering and disease and death. Really, this might be the best book I have read on suffering, and on how to tell these stories true. It is a story about a singular slum in India, but it is also a story about the world. It isn’t pleasant, or easily understood, nor can one reduce it to stereotypes. In the best sense, it is truth.

I would recommend the book to anyone, for the writing is beautiful and the stories eye-opening. But what interests me even more is the author herself, the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Katherine Boo. Boo practices what she describes as “immersion” journalism, spending months and years living among those whom she writes about. And for as long as she can remember, she has wanted to write about the poor. She has won awards for her depictions of the poor in America for various newspapers and magazines, and in 2007 she began her residency in Annawadi, the Indian slum where she would spend the majority of her next four years. Her book reads as a novel—Boo as a character is completely absent. In her afterword, she explains how she came to be so intimately familiar with her subjects as to know their thoughts: basically, she followed them around and asked them, over and over (to their eventual annoyance) just what exactly they were thinking. And she writes how her Annawadi friends were aware that she was writing about them, and that she was going to write it all down: the good and the bad, their virtues and flaws. But they helped her, and it was for themselves that they spoke and let a foreign follow them around, year after year.

This in of itself is something we can take away from the book: the chance to let people talk for themselves. But it is rigorous work, and the time commitment is steep. Katherine Boo talks about the importance of the “earned fact”, of seeing and experiencing something enough times to report it accurately. This takes on special importance for those of us interested in writing about the marginalized. Do we have what it takes to be these kinds of writers? I can only hope so. In a culture that is increasingly hurtling towards instant results (End Poverty Now!, short-term mission trips, poverty bloggers) there is startling beauty and impact to be found in a single soul spending 4 years listening to those who have things to tell.

Now hear me when I say this: I do not think our attempts at short-term missions/poverty reduction/raising awareness are bad. I don’t. But I am ready to call them what they are, which is primarily a method for changing our lives and perspectives. As a long-term missionary recently wrote, we need to stop telling people that they can sign up for a week or two in another country and change the world. This is false advertising. What we can do is tell people that if you go and see the realities of the world for yourself, if you have eyes to see and ears to hear, your life will be changed. Your world will never be small again; your choices never isolated to the benefits to you and yours alone. And hopefully, once you have seen and heard from the other side of the gap, you will never look back at a life spent pursuing anything less than seeing the kingdom of God come here on the earth.

Katherine Boo is not a missionary, nor does she impose any sort of moral or spiritual undertones into her book. But we still have so much to learn from her. Her radical relocation and time commitment, her desire for truth at all costs, her love for her subjects, and her distaste with traditional narratives surrounding poverty. She writes:

“I quickly grew impatient with poignant snapshots of Indian squalor: the ribby children with flies in their eyes and other emblems of abjectness that one can’t help but see within five minutes of walking into a slum. For me—and, I would argue, for the parents of most impoverished children—the more important line of inquiry is one that takes longer to discern. What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are squandered? By what means might the ribby child grow up to be less poor?"

The Church especially has latched onto a less-nuanced version of the last question, and all but ignored the other two. We prefer to talk about poverty when it is manageable, when it can be solved by us—conveniently with a certain project that we can donate to and thus help “cure” the problem. But really, the other questions are where it is at. What is it about the world at large that causes these problems? How does the way we live as average Westerners contribute to the problem (one of Boo’s biggest questions stems from the “profound and juxtaposed inequality—the signature fact of so many cities”)?

These are not easy questions, so it is no wonder we don’t like to look them long in the eye. But Behind the Beautiful Forevers was a gift to me, a chance to learn more about the world and a chance to look inside my own heart. I don’t say this lightly: this book changed me. It takes the concept of “giving a voice to the voiceless” and shakes all the pious do-gooderism out of it. It confronts the double lies that we view the poor as inferior (while Boo presents them as flexible, smart, adaptable, corrupt, hopeful, and human) and that most of us simply have no real relationship with those who live in extreme poverty. How can we write, donate, pray for or minister to those that we don’t even really know?

 

 

 

 

 

 

We can’t.

 

 

 

 

 

For more information on Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Katherine Boo, you can read her interview with the Millions here, or read about some of her influences (with tips for prospective immersion journalists) here.

On Thursday, we will continue in our War Photographer series with an amazing essay from another "immersion" author that borrows a bit from Boo as well.

War Photographer: Peter Anderson

I'm incredibly excited to have my first actual photographer in my War Photographer series. Peter (and his wife Liz, who you will be hearing from in a few weeks time) are amazingly thoughtful individuals--living a life that most of us would find hard with impossible grace. The words in this post were like a balm for my soul, as were the images that accompanied them. For more stunning photography (and plenty of wisdom as well) check out Peter's blog, Fiercely Alive

 

 

I am a war photographer.

Or I want to be, at least.

When I started playing with my first digital camera, I fell in love with the idea of photojournalism. Good photojournalism has this incredible power to open up new worlds, to tell untold stories, and to expose the hidden parts of society that people usually ignore. Though I was a wannabe young radical with a heart for “urban issues,” I was still finishing college in a very white, upper middle-class suburb of Chicago. So I saw the nearby city as an opportunity to start photographing the real world that everyone else in my suburban area and rural hometown was missing out on. I wanted to jump into the war against poverty, against discrimination, against apathy; I wanted to make a difference. For me, that meant showing how messed up and forgotten our world really is.

I’d hop on the train and travel into the city on a weekend, exploring this unknown urban jungle. With sneaky shots of the homeless, portraits of Latino construction workers, and scenes of gritty poor neighborhoods, I was learning how to shoot while teaching myself to see the details of a city I just knew people preferred to ignore. This was it—with camera in hand, I had found my way to speak prophetically to the world.

After graduating, I’d had enough of the suburbs. My wife had a connection with an intentional community and church on the north side of Chicago, so we moved there (and I wound up on staff at the church a year later). Our new community was diverse, it had immigrants and public housing, and gangs claimed territory on either side of our street. Clearly, this was where we were supposed to be, right?

Our neighborhood offered a plethora of opportunities for good urban photography: I could walk down one street and shoot run-down buildings, down another to find Latino immigrants selling watermelons from the back of a truck, and a third street to discreetly photograph young black men hanging out on the corner. (Note: Please don’t actually do this. Nothing screams “Cop!” louder than a white man in the city taking sneaky shots of teens smoking weed).

Over time, though, photographing in our area became more difficult. It felt awkward taking pictures of people I didn’t know; it felt dishonest representing people from afar. Worst of all, as I built relationships with our neighbors around us, I realized my photos only showed people as “social issues” while ignoring everything else about them.

I had taken our city and turned it into nothing but stereotypes.

My supposedly prophetic photography, which I dreamed could one day change the world, was doing nothing but showing the ugly surface and ignoring everything underneath. I was taking the assumptions and fears of everyone who I hoped would see the truth, and showed them only what they expected:

Look how poor our community is.

Look how dirty and run-down our buildings are.

Look how hopeless and dangerous our youth are.

Look how rough a place the city is.

I was no longer just a wannabe photojournalist, traveling to unknown places and photographing new people and sights. I was a local, a member of the community, a friend and neighbor to the people around me. My community wasn’t just a set of “social issues” anymore: I knew the mother down the street was working three jobs to support her children, I mentored youth desperate for a safe place to hang out and be kids again, and I saw brilliant students on track to college if they could avoid the gangs and drugs their peers were falling into.

I am a war photographer, but my war has changed. I’m a minister, no longer an objective outsider. I don’t need to show everyone how broken the world is; it’s easy to see, and many people are doing it far better than I ever could.

What the world does need—what my community needs—is to see real live people, with real hopes and dreams like the rest of us, who are trying as best as they can to survive the brokenness around them.

What the world needs—what my community needs—is for the people we stereotype to be able to define and present themselves as they want to be seen, to be able to put their best foot forward.

What the world needs—what my community needs—are more signs of hope that grow amidst the problems, not more reminders of the problems.

Does this mean we gloss over the issues in our communities? I don’t think that’s helpful. People need to know, for example, that my current neighborhood in London has the highest rate of child poverty in the country, that young people are often afraid of leaving their neighborhood for fear of getting jumped. But images and stories are able to share this context, this environment, without treating people as merely the sum of their situation.

So how do we do all this? I still don’t really know yet. I’m still trying to learn how to do it well. But I do know what I’m striving for:

Where the world sees poverty, we want it to see a different sort of richness.

Where the world sees violence, we want it to see people longing for peace.

Where the world sees crime, we want it to see neighbors looking out for each other.

Where the world sees brokenness, we want it to see stories of hope and strength.

Where the world sees destruction, we want it to see signs of God’s redemption.

Amidst the darkness, we want the world to see the Kingdom.

 

A trash can in our neighborhood overflowing with rubbish from snacks and fast food. When a community has serious problems, it’s not difficult to show it; symptoms are everywhere.

A local youth in Chicago shows off some of his bike tricks behind his local school. The obvious focus for kids like him is to talk about poor grades, lack of role models, and proximity to drugs and violence. Exploring what they’re good at, what excites them, allows them to be seen on their own terms.

A local barber volunteers once a week to give free haircuts at a homeless shelter in California. Documenting this small event was a treat; the men enjoyed their weekly gathering, and all of them were proud of how they looked after their trim. Despite their difficult circumstances, it was great to show them when they felt at their best.

Young women get creative during London’s first real snowfall last year. What are the signs in your community that people hope and dream for something better?

 

PedroPeter Anderson is a black belt pacifist photographer. He mostly wears black, loves the city but wants to live in the mountains, and thinks walking is a great way to get around. He and his wife Liz are part of InnerCHANGE’s team in the East End of London.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the idea behind the series, go here.

War Photographer: J.R. Goudeau

War Photographer: Melissa Gutierrez

War Photographer: Ed Cyzewski

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.

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