Monday, September 26, 2016

Ready to Run

Sorting through my favorite photos from the previous Run to Rescue Virtual Runs.  Although most of my posts the past year have been about Myanmar, the work of She is Safe extends into places throughout the world where women and girls are most at risk for exploitation and abuse.  Their work is so much more than rescue.  They prevent, empower, and restore. 

Two more weeks to sign up for the Run to Rescue Virtual Run!  Won't you join me?

Sunday, January 24, 2016

22: Myanmar - New horizons

So.  Myanmar.

I am not sure if I even know where to begin.  I feel as if I had the opportunity to watch a divine tapestry being woven.

On the first night of the trip we attended a grand opening of a multi-national church plant in Myanmar.  As part of the service, a lovely group of young women shared a dance they had learned together.  One of these young women shared through a translator that she did not deserve to be worshipping in that place, but that she celebrated the fact that Jesus had covered her sins.  She rejoiced that because He was worthy, and she was His, she was free.  I later found out that these women were all living and working together in the process of being restored from the trauma of being trafficked.

The term "trafficked"actually sounds too clinical to me, even though it is the correct term.  In the case of the women we met in Myanmar, being trafficked means being tricked, taken against their will, often times drugged and beaten, and even locked in a room, a shed, or chained to a bed until she demonstrated that she would be obedient.  This abuse can happen both in brothel communities and in cases in which young women are purchased as wives for men in China.  One shy and beautiful young woman we met walked with a limp from having her hip crushed in an escape attempt.

Later in the week, we visited the workshop where these young women heal and learn job and financial skills and adjust to a life with a regular routine.  The founder of the ministry, who engages regularly with workers in the red-light districts, explained that girls in Myanmar are lacking in the street smarts and awareness that could help them avoid being trafficked.  She told us that there is a dire need in Myanmar to provide awareness prevention tactics to pre-teen and teen girls who are most at risk.

Now, get this.

The remarkable woman who is investing her time, money and talent into reaching workers in the sex industry is a She is Safe partner in China.  She is also married to a man whom God has called to do humanitarian work with impoverished children in developing countries through mentorship and strategic partnerships.   He is currently serving as an advisor to an organization in Myanmar that is establishing programs for young children in the slums of Myanmar.  The programs seek to improve opportunities for children through education, relationship and training.

However, as they went around to the five different communities where they work, the leader of the program noticed something.  Although the program was intended for younger children, a surprising number of teenage girls were showing up each week, wanting to participate and interact.  In the process of working with younger children, the children's outreach staff was also building relationships with the teenagers, many of whom were no longer in school because of family relocation to the city or failure to pass exams.

Circumstances--poverty, innocence and halted education--put these teen girls at high risk for abuse and exploitation.   Fortunately, their circumstances also put them in relationship with people who knew the importance of awareness training and education.  The team began discussing the possibility of adding a program exclusively for teen girls in each of the communities where they worked.

Enter She is Safe.

Last May, She is Safe began exploring a partnership with the Myanmar organization to support their work with children and assist them in starting a program for teen girls.  Together they sought God's direction, set goals, and began raising funds to begin the teen program.

The trip I joined this December was a follow-up trip to the May meeting.  During our first meeting, my friend Katy introduced the concept of Transformation Groups, and what the ministry might look like in the context of Myanmar.  Her explanation generated great enthusiasm in our partners, as they could see the potential for impacting the communities where they are already engaged.

The next day we saw why.  As we accompanied the Myanmar workers on their rounds to the different communities, we noticed in a few of them that not only were teenagers coming to participate, the mothers returning from work often stopped to watch as well.

Right there, in those five communities, relationships are being built with children, teens and mothers. These relationships are critical, because the culture is intensely relational; nothing happens without first establishing relationship.  Because of the initial efforts of the She is Safe partner, these five communities are now ripe for  multi-pronged prevention efforts based on the relationships that have been nurtured over the past year.  With proper resources and staffing, She is Safe partners are poised to empower children with education and hope, equip teenage girls with preventive awareness and opportunities, and mothers with self-governing Transformation Groups that can enrich their communities on many levels.

She is Safe and their partners are ready to begin the work.  Are you ready to help?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

21: It Takes a Team

I mentioned before that upon learning about the extent of modern-day slavery (27 million slaves worldwide today) and human trafficking in the world, my gut-level response was a passion for rescuing slaves and those enduring the horrors of human trafficking.

Then I learned about the work She is Safe does training women in the work of Transformation Groups.  This work captured my attention because of the potential to attack the problem of human trafficking by empowering women to slowly and pervasively alter the oppressive aspects of their culture by benefitting their communities.  The change brought about through an effective Transformation Group could actually keep trafficking from happening in the first place.

Think about it--as exciting as it is to hear stories of women and girls being rescued from horrific situations, I can guarantee you that every one of them would say that it would have been even better if they had never been trafficked.

Looking back now, I can see that my enthusiasm for Transformation Groups and prevention work made me a little frustrated with what seemed like a focus on the work of rescue over prevention.

Here's the thing:  It all matters.

As we were preparing to travel to Myanmar, my friend Katy mentioned a video she had seen that painted a great picture of the comprehensive work of anti-trafficking.

This is not my word picture, but it was a powerful image for me in gaining understanding about the scope of anti-trafficking.

Imagine you are on the side of a river and notice there is a child in the water flailing about, drowning.   Of course, you must save that child!  The right thing to do at that moment is jump into the river, pull the child to safety, and begin working to revive him.

Even as you are attending to the gasping child, you notice another child coming downstream, in trouble and struggling to survive.  Again, you jump in.  This cycle repeats itself until it seems there is a never-ending crisis as child after child floats down river.

The sheer number of victims and relentlessness of the flow cause you to think: What is going on up river that all these children are drowning?  Do they not have boats?  Have they never learned to swim?  

It would be useful to run upstream and find out what is causing the crisis at hand, except that if you leave your spot to find out, the children currently in the river where you are would be lost.  You need to stay where you are, but someone needs to go find out what's going on upstream and work to solve the problem there.

What is needed is someone up river, identifying the sources of the problem and doing the work to prevent children from falling in.

Do you see?  BOTH locations are critical in stopping the crisis.

That is the idea in anti-trafficking work; it takes a team of workers, working together at different points in the trafficking process to solve the crisis.

Rescue IS important.  When I was in Myanmar, I met several women who had been rescued through a brothel outreach.  Many of them had previously been trafficked to China and escaped, only to begin working in the brothels of Myanmar because they believed the lie that they were ruined in China and that the sex-industry was now the only place they had value.  However, through the friendship of some rather remarkable people, these young women were able to realize that they were not damaged goods, and that there were options open to them besides prostitution.  In a shelter in Myanmar, they were healing their minds and spirits, and re-learning "normal life" things like keeping a routine, working predictable hours, and caring for themselves and their surroundings.  Seeing these lovely, shy faces, who were obviously healing and growing in confidence, I could never again say that prevention is more important than rescue.

Still, on my visit to Myanmar, my fervor for prevention work only deepened.  Not only did I meet young women who had been victims of human-trafficking, I also had the joy of meeting many children and teen girls who moved from rural areas with their families because the best jobs available to their parents were to collect trash in the city.  Because of life circumstances like poverty and lack of education, too many of them are at high risk for being trafficked.  Looking at the still innocent faces of the children and teens we visited and knowing the deep emotional and spiritual scars that result from trafficking, I am even more desperate that prevention work should be happening.

The beauty of the illustration of the river is the understanding it gives me of the work of She is Safe. They also grasp the idea that a team is needed.  They do not prioritize one branch of work over another.  Instead, they are like a person who assists the people working all along the river who cannot leave their posts.  They form partnerships in high-risk areas, providing assistance, resources, and encouragement to the leaders in the area who are already doing prevention, rescue and restoration.

In later posts I will write more about what this partnership approach looks like in Myanmar.   In the meantime, I encourage you to go to the She is Safe website and learn more about their partnerships and the countries where they are involved.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Twenty: You Can't Cure a Disease by Treating Symptoms

I feel like I need to explain my statement in a previous post that God did not use me in Myanmar.  It doesn't mean that God had no purpose for sending me.  It's just that I suspect that the primary purpose for this trip was not so much for me to be used by God to save others, but rather for God to teach me.   I hope that in sharing what I've learned, however, the trip will have value beyond just my personal enrichment.

This trip felt like a bringing together of several strands of knowledge that I've been learning since a trip to Haiti in 2010, but the short version is this:  There is a right and a wrong way to engage internationally to foster justice and fight oppression, and She is Safe does it right.

I saw the results of "aid gone wrong" on a post-earthquake trip to Haiti.  Although I couldn't have put my finger on it at the time, I was troubled by a rather dependent mind-set on the part of many (but by no means all) Haitians whose answer to difficult times was to request money or rescue from their wealthier non-Haitian contacts.  In hindsight, I believe the attitude is one WE created over decades of well-intentioned but poorly designed efforts to help the struggling nation.

In their book Helping Without Hurting, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert suggest that "helping" can actually hurt the recipient because it too often fails to address the roots of the problem.  For example, many programs by churches and humanitarian organizations have the goal of poverty alleviation.  However, the programs have an incomplete and unbiblical view of poverty as a lack of material goods or financial opportunity.  In this view, the "solution" is too often simply to give the needy the material goods that are lacking.

In reality, this approach is merely treating a symptom of the much deeper and more complex psychological and social roots that lead to poverty.  As a result, our well-intentioned handouts have the unintended side effects of creating dependency, undermining the dignity of the materially poor, and perpetuating the underlying causes of poverty.

Corbett and Fikkert prescribe a more biblical and holistic view of poverty as "rooted in broken relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation."  Using the Bible as their guide, the authors propose modeling development efforts after God's mission of what they call "comprehensive reconciliation" in ways that restore not just material possessions, but opportunity, dignity, and an appreciation of one's identity as a divine image-bearer.

Applying the perspectives offered by Corbett and Fikkert to the important anti-trafficking work that is much more in the spotlight these days, I can see how I have made similar errors in thinking.  When I first learned of the extent of human-trafficking in the world--and particularly sex-trafficking--my response was what I hope most people's would be: "We have got to stop this!  We have to rescue the women and children enduring such horrors!"

It's not wrong thinking, but it is incomplete.  Yes, we must have programs that work directly to rescue people from slavery and exploitation.  However, until we address the underlying systems of thought and culture that foster the treatment of humans as property, until we attack thinking that elevates personal gratification over all else, trafficking will continue to flourish.

Such an approach is a daunting undertaking:  It is slow, complicated, messy, and definitely not for the faint of heart.   On my trip to Myanmar, I had the privilege of seeing such efforts walked out by She is Safe staff members and their partners in Myanmar.  Seeing all of my book-learning walked out in practice in a context that is so ripe with opportunity is why I can say with confidence that my trip was a success despite the fact that I rescued no one.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Nineteen: How God Used Me

If I were a real blogger, here's how things would have gone down:

After my initial posts about my invitation to travel with She is Safe, I would have shared regular updates chronicling my thoughts and the process of preparing to go halfway around the world.  Instead, what I will offer (I hope) is an after-the-fact processing of the journey.

Since I'm still waiting for my brain to get home from Myanmar, this will likely come in scattered snippets (mostly because that's how it's coming to me).

After reading my last post about the trip, I recognize a major shift that has occurred in my thinking and my "justification" for going.  As you can imagine, it's not cheap to travel more than halfway around the globe, and most of my turmoil while preparing for the trip was using the generous contributions of other people to fund a trip on which I had no clear role.   It's incredibly awkward to be asked, "So what will you be doing in Myanmar?" when the only honest answer is, "I don't really know."

After reading Helping Without Hurting, I was able to have a certain degree of peace, but that was mainly because I felt that even if I didn't know what my job was on this trip, God did.  I felt a sense of anticipation about seeing how God would use me.

Now I'm back, and do you know what?  He didn't.  I can probably kiss any future fundraising for trips goodbye with this statement, but God had no use for me on this trip--and I am completely okay with it.

Here's what I've discovered: Sometimes God puts a fire in a person's heart and gives a vision, a purpose, a passion, and a commission to carry out a task.  In fact, on this trip I was privileged to travel with two such people and meet several more.

In my case, however, I don't know that this was a commissioning event or an issuing of a grand task--at least not right now.  Rather, I had the very humbling yet liberating sense in Myanmar that He was just inviting me along to learn and gain some understanding of how He's working there.

He didn't want to use me, He wanted to show me.

I'm not sure if I can articulate what a gift it was during a spiritually lonely and frustrating season to feel that the God of the Universe just wanted me with Him, as a child and a friend, to watch Him work and feel His love for all people.

So, I guess my first take-away is for all of us goal-oriented Americans with a hidden hero complex and a need to perform:

It's okay--vital even--just to be the sidekick sometimes.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Eighteen: To my Beloved Atheist:

Note: While it is written to an atheist, I challenge Christians--myself included--to read this letter as if it were written to them.  Because we are just as prone to the attitudes I am addressing here. 

It is not written to a specific person, but rather to a compilation of many people whom I love and who have deeply held beliefs that are different from mine.  I use the term atheist, but it could just as easily have been a person who passionately holds any belief system that is different from mine, be it religious, educational, political, or nutritional.  We have become such a culture of critics and--to use a technical term--side-takers. This is my attempt to offer a better way.

To My Beloved Atheist:

I read the following phrase yesterday:

"There's plenty of space here for differences and disagreements, but I will not save room at the table for aggression or harassment, I won't respond to condescension."--Jamie Wright

I almost shouted, "YES!"

Yet here I go, about to respond to condescension, albeit unintended.  I respond not to win an argument, because I don't believe I can. I am not intellectual enough nor self-assured enough to match wits with you, and we both are too deeply passionate about our beliefs.

My kids' logic book would classify it as a stupid argument: one that cannot be won because neither party can be swayed.  First of all, the key point of difference in our beliefs is one that cannot be empirically proven.  I can show you scientific reasons for why I believe there is a Creator, and you can give me scientific reasons why you believe there isn't.  However, I cannot PROVE to you there's a God, and you can't PROVE to me there isn't.  So why fight about it?

I don't want to.

I would, however, like to invite you to take a peek at my perspective.  Whether it is right or wrong is not the point of this conversation.  It is just my perspective, and I'm not sure you've ever considered it.

When you proclaim your beliefs, it is often from a stance that feels very confrontational, with the implied suggestion--if not declaration--that anyone who disagrees is an idiot. Or delusional.

I know you love me and would never tell me to my face that I am a simpleton.  Yet you ridicule my beliefs to rooms full of people with me standing there; you shout your disdain across the Internet, knowing I'm out there somewhere, living a life based on what you mock.

You don't mean to say that I am stupid.  Just people who think like me.

It doesn't offend (okay, maybe it does); mainly it hurts.

I know, Christians can be just as gifted at condescension as atheists, as can passionate Republicans, Democrats, vegans, gun owners, or gun-control advocates... you get the picture. Maybe we all have surrounded ourselves so completely with like-minded people that we forget that not everyone is like-minded, and so we scorn some imaginary "others" whom we never consider wounding because they are a caricature, not a person.

I don't know.

I do know we all need to be nicer, and put a real face to that other, that fool, we are ridiculing. So next time you feel the urge to speak or write something belittling Christians, I would like you to picture my face, and write as if you are saying it about me

Because you are.

While I don't want to argue whose beliefs are RIGHT, I do think it's helpful to listen more than we speak.  Even more, we need to listen to understand, not to simply to respond.  I would be happy to share with you why I believe what I do, if you are ever curious and think you could listen and be open to the possibility that a person can be rational, sane, and even intelligent, and yet arrive at a different conclusion than you did.  I would also love to hear what reasons you have for why you believe as you do, and with such passion. You're very clear about what you believe, but I don't feel like I know what led you to your set of convictions.

If we could let go of the need to convince one another long enough to hear each other, it might be a beautiful conversation.

The other point I'd like to offer some perspective on is one of motives.

You are often rather evangelistic in your proclamation of your beliefs. Whether you intend it or not, when you forcefully pronounce the superiority of your faith in no god, I feel very much as if you are trying to convert me, to get me to renounce my faith and turn to yours.  Any why not? Christians are pretty enthusiastic about converting others to their faith.  It's only fair.

Except here's the question I have always had: Why is it so important that I don't believe?  If you convince me, how is that better for me?

If I understand correctly, you believe we are products of chance, life is what it is and nothing guides or influences it other than the actors in the play.  We are on our own.  Let's even assume you are right about this.  How does it benefit my life, how is it better for me to believe it?  I can cling to my very satisfying delusion and when my life is over be none the wiser.  Delusion or not, if there is no God, and this is all there is, then I'll be too dead to be disappointed if I'm wrong.

On the other hand, if I concede that you are right and reject my faith to believe as you do--I will have turned away from my hope, my purpose, my meaning, and my joy.  Sure, I have might been wrong about it all, but what difference will it make in the grand scheme of things?  If what you believe is true, why do you feel the need to convert me--particularly if my "delusion" encourages me to love others, live humbly, give generously and fight injustice?  It doesn't feel like your motives are loving if you would take that away and offer nothingness in return.

Now humor me and try to imagine I am right.  Remember we're not debating if I'm right or not, we're going for understanding of my motives. Suspend your disbelief for a moment and pretend that what I believe is actually the truth...

What I believe is that we were created to be in relationship with a holy and loving God. Consequently, it follows that by not believing, you are rejecting him and missing out good things.  Ultimate things, actually, and I want good for you.  Furthermore, I believe that this life is not all there is, and that if you reject God during this lifetime, there are pretty serious and eternal consequences--the very least of which is spending forever with no way to feel love, joy, or satisfaction--and acutely, eternally aware of the loss.

So think about this: even if that is impossible to believe, can you at least appreciate why it would be important to me to let you know about what I believe?  Can you see that even if it makes you uncomfortable, or embarrassed or annoyed,  the motive behind the sharing of my faith is a loving one?  If I love you, and if I really believe what I say I do, then I'd have to be some kind of a jerk not to at least try to make you aware.

In fact, I should probably apologize for not trying harder.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Seventeen: Setting Things Straight About Sex

"Your naked body deserves the honor of being shared only with someone who is covenanted to never stop loving your naked soul."—Ann Voskamp

I read these words, which ring so beautiful and true, and for some reason I was reminded of a conversation I had with a young woman this summer.  She told me, "the problem with all of the purity events I went to is they push the message on us that the most important thing about a girl is her virginity."  There was a twinge of anger in her tone that broke my heart.

I was at some of those events, and I know that was not the intended message.   Still, the fact that even one girl came away feeling like that is jarring to me.  Regardless of intent, if that message is the one a young woman internalized, we failed her.  Even worse, we failed the gospel and the message of grace.

So, for every young person who has felt like that, let me set the record straight.

You are so much more than the status of your virginity.  In fact, the whole idea of "purity" is misleading.  Apart from Jesus, none of us is pure--not even the most virginal--but in Him anyone can be--even the most promiscuous.  Your value has absolutely nothing to do with your sexual status, but rather your status as the creation of a loving God who thought you were worth dying for.   One of the things that always tore me apart when this discussion came up in Sunday School or at youth events was the way issue of virginity was used as a measuring stick in hurtful, competitive ways--at least among the girls.  Those who were still waiting felt proud, and those who hadn't waited assumed the others were virgins only because they were undesirable.  

Hear this: no matter whether you have never looked at the opposite sex or have been around the block and back, you are precious and worth fighting for. You were created for a big, powerful, sacrificial love and you. are. worth. it.  

The only reason your virginity matters to God is that He wants the best for you.

I'll be honest. I hope my kids marry virgins (and marry AS virgins), but not because that would make them better people or more deserving of love.  I want it because I think it is the safest, easiest way to enjoy the gift of sex--as designed and free of baggage. However, do you know what I want more?  I want them to marry someone who treasures them the way Jesus does, because he or she understands His love.  I want them to marry someone who loves their soul and not just their shell.  

Also, I hope you get that sex isn't dirty, and it's not shameful.  God actually created sex, and He wants you to enjoy it.  The reason we old folks want you to wait is that we've learned--some of us the hard way--that when you try to enjoy God's gifts outside of the context for which He created them, you lose out on the full joy He wanted you to have.  That's why I love the quote above--it's such a great picture of what He intended and why it's so wonderful HIS way.  The human body is so much more complex than just hormones, urges and interlocking parts.  

Even secular science is finding that the best scenario for physical intimacy is within the context of a committed, monogamous relationship. Good sex releases chemicals that bond you emotionally to another person.  The only way to have sex without creating that bond is to have bad sex, and who wants that?   It's also no surprise to find out  that psychological research is finding that those who follow the hook-up culture's message of sex without relationship or commitment often suffer psychologically.  Whether your mind accepts it or not, your body and your subconscious know that sex is more than just physical.  

I guess that's the message I hope you get. You are loved whether you wait or not.  You are valuable whether you wait or not.  But when I urge you to wait, it's because I know something.  Someone needs to counter the message that the culture is sending.  

We were made for something different and so much better.


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