Alli’s convicting words about how we share others’ stories struck a chord yesterday. I’m so thankful. And I want to use them as a springboard into some other important (related) topics.
Human rights. Helping the poor. The white savior complex. Poverty porn. Short-term mission trips. “Voluntourism.” Preserving dignity. Opening our eyes to the world around us. White privilege. Sharing our faith/proselytizing. Hand-outs vs. a hand up. Liking Facebook statuses and thinking we’re actually making a difference. The idea that West is Best. Photography in the majority world. Terms we use that are actually degrading.
Etc etc etc etc etc. ETCETERA.
(Are you overwhelmed yet??)
(Side note: the friend who initially confronted me about the faceless collage lost a couple nights’ sleep over the fact that I was disappointed in her. We’ve had a healthy, helpful conversation since, clearing up misunderstandings and addressing some really important issues, including several I mentioned above. And, most importantly, staying friends.)
Two things first:
1.) All of these issues are just so deep and so complex, and I’m super wary of anyone who has a simple black/white solution to any of them. We NEED the dialogue, we NEED to listen, we NEED to hear both sides (or ALL sides, because sometimes there are many), we NEED to examine our own hearts and motives, we NEED to get out of our white American bubbles (or whatever bubble we happen to be in).
Which brings me to point #2.
2.) We NEED to admit/realize that we are not always going to get this right. I LOVE how Alli refers to herself as early-missionary Alli and then middle-missionary Alli, realizing she will probably never be already-arrived Alli. We’re imperfect human beings. We’re going to mess this up. And when we do, how will we respond? With arrogance or humility? With a blase attitude or a deep desire to make things right? And will we promise to try our very, very best to get it as right as we possibly can, knowing that other human lives and souls are at stake?
As I thought more about what my friend said about the faceless collage, I began to see where she was coming from. And she elaborated on her original statements for me, so that helped. She said that I had gone from posting celebratory Grand Opening pics (where I actually showed some kids’ faces) and everyday life (kids jumping rope, reading, playing with blocks) to this photo of a mass of children with their faces hidden. AND I told people I was excited to show them these kids’ faces in person this summer so they could pray for them with me.
Her initial reaction was shock. This picture (and my words) seemed so different than the ones before. Instead of showing kids doing normal kid stuff, I had collected them all in a pile and said I wanted people to pray for them (and I’d be showing their faces/stories in real life–is that really so different from online? yes and no.).
Here’s the context behind that post. Gabe had taken a photo of each kid. (And, oh my gosh, I wish you could see him with them. He’s so good at making them feel comfortable and joking with them in Khmer and showing them their photo on the screen when he’s done and telling them they look great.) He printed them out, and I was kind of in awe at how beautiful the photos were and how much each child already means to me. I feel super strongly about learning their names (I know maybe 20 of them by heart so far) so that they know that they matter, that they have worth.
And here’s the thing. Us helping them does not GIVE them worth. They already HAVE it. They just don’t always realize it because, in many situations, no one has ever told them this truth.
I loooove what Father Greg Boyle says in his book, Tattoos on the Heart (READ IT IMMEDIATELY), about his life’s work with gang members in LA: “At Homeboy Industries we seek to tell each person this truth: that they are exactly what God had in mind when God made them–and then we watch, from this privileged place, as people inhabit this truth.” (p. 192)
Yes yes yes yes YES.
So, it was 6:30am, I was sitting on my balcony with a steaming cup of chai tea latte, my Bible, journal, and these pictures. I was practicing their names and praying for each of them. Some of them I know better than others. Some have already told us specific struggles & concerns.
And my heart was just bubbling over with love, and I wanted you all to see the pictures of these precious ones, but I knew I couldn’t share them online, so I did what I thought was the next best thing.
But it might not have been.
(There is really no definitive answer to whether it was or wasn’t.)
So, I’ve been thinking a lot this week (well, and always) about how to post pictures and tell stories in a way that preserves dignity instead of stripping it away.
And I just really want to be super careful. And I want to make sure my heart is pure. And I want to make sure I’m always putting others first, ahead of any agenda I might have personally.
The bummer is that there are probably always going to be people who don’t like what I do, but I can’t let that make me shy away from sharing. If I honestly examine my actions (and their words against me) and weigh it out and listen to both sides, and STILL feel I was right, then I can stand firm in that.
Because there will be people who tell me NO MATTER WHAT that our family is only in Cambodia because we want to feel good about ourselves for helping poor people.
So, what’s the alternative? Never reach out and help anyone else since helping “feels good?”
Yeah, I can’t live like that.
So, I’ll keep living in the tension of doing what I believe Jesus has called us to do–love my neighbor as I love myself–whatever that ends up looking like.
One last thing before I sign off without having addressed 94% of the issues I mentioned above (THE STORY OF MY LIFE).
Our family has had some discussions lately about what it means to live in the same place where we work. Let me explain.
When we lived at Abbey Lane, it was no secret that we had moved there, in part, to love our neighbors from Somalia (and other parts of the world). We had already helped start a tutoring program there with our church.
BUT we desperately wanted it to be known/understood that we were NOT selfless white Christians swooping (and stooping) down to live with people we thought were “less than” us. Abso-freaking-lutely not.
Father Greg again: “The wrong idea has taken root in the world. And the idea is this: there just might be lives out there that matter less than other lives.” (p. 192)
We lived at Abbey Lane as neighbors, as equals, as people with different skin color and a different faith, yes, but SAME. EQUAL. FRIENDS. FAMILY. (and I’ve shared a million times how much our Abbey Lane friends gave to us and blessed us that far outshone anything we ever did for them.)
And I often tried to show that friend/family/neighbor/all-part-of-the-same-big-human-crew dynamic in the photos I posted. Photos of us just doing life together (for lack of a not-as-over-used term). Photos that I hoped & prayed would inspire others to make friends outside of their normal friend-box.
And now we live at Abbey Lane, Cambodia Edition. And we have met neighbors and made friends, and our kids play with their kids, and it is BEAUTIFUL.
And I’ve felt sad that I can’t post pictures of my daughters and their friends, like I did at Abbey Lane (with the kids’ and parents’ permission).
So I chatted with Alli and explained my predicament and offered a possible solution and asked for her blessing.
I told her how much fun we had taking photos at Abbey Lane and how much I loved being able to document our girls’ growing-up years and the friends they made and how I wished we could do that here.
I told her about our girls going out to play with their neighbor friends here in Siem Reap after 4:30 (when the center closes for the day) and on weekends and how they play on the dirt road and in their neighbors’ yards (we’ve chosen to keep our own gate closed to set some boundaries–otherwise, we’d have 50-100 kids here from 6am until dark 7 days a week). And I asked if it would be okay to sometimes post pics of the kids in that setting.
I said I’d love to be able to share our real life with people and let them see the side of us that doesn’t just help run an NGO, but that we’re also just a normal family living in a village with some pretty awesome neighbors.
She said I absolutely could.
Yay! (And I’m going to try to not stress out about explaining on every photo why I’m posting a face and it’s actually okay. #notHPCjustourneighbors #thesearemynormalkidsandtheirfriends Sigh. WHY IS EVERYTHING SO COMPLICATED?)
I’ll leave with one last beautiful thought from Father Greg (and I’ll do what I can to address other issues soon–it’s gonna be a lifelong dialogue though, I think).
“Often we strike the high moral distance that separates ‘us’ from ‘them,’ and yet it is God’s dream come true when we recognize that there exists no daylight between us. Serving others is good. It’s a start. But it’s just the hallway that leads to the Grand Ballroom. Kinship–not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not ‘a man for others’; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that.” (p. 188)
It wasn’t until I’d read Tattoos on the Heart that I had a word for the one BIG DREAM I have for my life. KINSHIP.
No us, no them, just all of us as one.
Not serving, just loving everybody. As family, kin.
A world of difference indeed.