The world should hate us because we insist on being agents of light and life in the midst of death and destruction. Not because we walk around loudly rattling off what the world already knows: that we are broken people living in a broken place.Read More
I sat through church, a weepy mess this morning, as Jeremy Cowart, and his wife Shannon, talked about their desire to use photography to change someone's life and restore their dignity and God-given belovedness. What started off as a quiet nudging in Jeremy's heart, turned into a one time event to give people in need a make-over and a proper portrait of themselves. The one-time event was so transformative, that another event was held. And then another. Five years later, the dream of one man's heart has turned into an international movement. Through the generous artistic expertise of photographers, hair stylists and make-up artists, Help Portrait has taken 282,295 portraits since 2009. Many of the people have never seen a picture of themselves before.
Many of the people have not felt beautiful, valued, or even known.
And a picture of who they really are? It changes everything.
Watch the video for this year's event, happening in cities all over the world on December 7th. You can donate clothes, make-up, or your time as a photographer, hair-stylist or make-up artist. Or you can do what I will be doing here in Nashville. Shake hands, give hugs, listen to stories and remind people of who they really are: a person of infinite value, dignity and worth.
Annie has taken a huge interest in the kids living in poverty in Africa. Tonight as we were talking in bed about Christmas presents she randomly said, "I know mom! I have a great idea! What if we get lots and lots of washing machines and houses and toys and bring them to the kids in Africa!!!" She was so excited. In her mind it is so easy and simple.
And when I really stop and think about it... I agree. Maybe it is that easy and that simple. Being generous, that is.
It just takes a tiny first step. You can work your way up to washing machines and houses down the road! Read more about the work I am doing with World Concern, see more pictures from my trip and find out how you can be a part of changing this little village that has stolen my heart.
It is a simple memory-
but one that haunts my mind.
The sound of rain coming for me.
Last week in Lietnhom, South Sudan I slept under a tin roof (one of the only tin roofs in the village; everything else is thatched) during one of the biggest thunderstorms I have ever heard in my life. The rain sounded like an army. Constant, steady, violent, encroaching. Angry. All night long it pounded away at the roof like artillery fire.
It is odd to sit in my living room today and watch the soundless rain roll off my shingled roof.
Like most of South Sudan, there is no electricity in the village of Lietnhom. So when it is dark, it is very dark. And when bolts of lightning strike, they pierce the sky with an unbelievably cruel, taunting brightness.
It must be scary as a small child to live in a hut with a thatched roof and no electricity during a thunderstorm.
It is utter darkness. No sound of cars in the distance. No highways. No stadium lights or street lights or sirens. Can you even imagine that kind of darkness? That kind of silence?
I would be lying if I said I wasn't scared.
In fact, the truth is, I was scared during much of my trip to South Sudan.
The people were kind beyond measure. They offered us the very best of every single thing they had. Their food. Their beds. Their friendship. Still, I found myself laying in bed each night praying several different prayers of desperation.
"Lord, please send a UN helicopter to come get me."
"God, if you're gonna end the world somehow, someway- tonight would be a perfect night for you to go ahead and do that."
"God I will do anything- I will serve you anywhere- if you will please, please just deliver me from this place."
It is with great shame that I confess: My solution, as I interacted with people living in extreme poverty, was to beg God to put an end to the world. Or at the very least, send in a special UN convoy to rescue me from latrines, mosquito nets, cold showers, no electricity and the really scary thunderstorm in the black of night that rattled the tin roof above my head like an army, coming to pillage.
Just because I spent a few days in the bush of South Sudan, Africa doesn't make me a saint or a hero or even a humanitarian. I'm not. I straight up spent most of my time praying for the apocalypse just so I would not have to pee in another bush on the side of a dirt road. Is that really end-of-the-world worthy? I think not.
If you make any conclusion about me based on my trip to South Sudan, conclude this: I am scared and selfish.
Scared to eat food that comes out of a tin shack with mud floors and barefoot women. Scared to eat the chicken on my plate (because I swear he was just roaming around my bedroom window a few minutes ago). Scared to use the latrines, convinced that the horrific smell has created some sort of critter that will come out and eat me. Scared to sleep in pitch black darkness. Scared to hold a baby that may not live to be a little girl. Scared to hug a momma who has to bury that little girl. Scared to look at both of them in the eyes and imagine it being me and my little girl. Scared to love them and see them as people...
because what if I go home and forget about their stories? Forget their cries for help?
"No milk. No milk," the momma shows me her breasts, drooping and empty, "You take her." And she tries to hand me her four-month-old baby.
Scared to look her in the eyes- scared that seeing her as human means I must act.
Scared that the problem is too big to be solved.
Scared that the only solution is death.
At the end of the day- I was just scared.
Though the country was beautiful and the people I met were amazing... the truth is, I couldn't get home fast enough. When I got to Washington, D.C. my dad picked me up from the airport. I asked if we could go straight to a restaurant for breakfast. I scarfed down croissants and muffins. A latte. In a pastry shop that serves the up and up of Washington, D.C. elites. From there I went straight to the store and bought a new outfit. A razor. Body scrub. Face wash. I showered for nearly an hour. An entire hour of wasted water and gas. And then, we went out to eat again for Mexican food. I ordered $10 tableside guacamole. By the time I caught my flight back to Nashville I had spent more money in half a day than the families I had just been with, spend in a year.
And the spending and eating and gluttony on all levels was cathartic. A sort of cleansing of the poverty via a frenzy of money spending. It was like something in me needed to spend money. Needed to consume. Needed to re-ground myself in wealth and comfort as quickly as possible.
And that speaks to my own selfishness. My own poverty.
An unhealthy dependence on the things of this world to make me feel comfortable and happy.
So now you know the truth. I am just a girl. Mostly scared. Mostly selfish. Entirely out of her element in the small village of Lietnhom, South Sudan. Praying, begging for some end-of-the-world moment, simply so I could be delivered from my own discomfort.
Poverty does that to us. It makes us uncomfortable. And if we can just get to the center lane, so we don't have to pull up right next to the homeless person on the corner and look them in the eyes, we have saved ourselves the discomfort of having to know and having to act.
The truth is, my trip to South Sudan with World Concern was one of the hardest trips of my entire life. And I feel like a baby saying that- because my teammates joyously snapped pictures, conducted interviews, pooped in latrines without complaint and ate the poor little pet chickens without hesitation. But for me- it was hard. It was hard on my body and soul. It was an affront to every single way of life I have ever known.
South Sudan was hard for me.
I met a family on my way out of the country who were there with their four American teenagers. The family is thinking of starting an orphanage in Kuajok, South Sudan. They already have the land given to them by the government of South Sudan- now they just have to raise funds for the building. But the parents wanted the kids to come over first- to see the place they felt God was leading them to.
The mom told me about the oldest daughter, Jane, getting violently ill during one of the rainstorms I mentioned. They were staying in a tent near the Nile river, the rain was pounding down relentlessly, their oldest daughter was throwing up violently, face-first on the muddy earth. And as the mom knelt by her side to care for her- a giant, five-foot snake slithered past.
And the mother broke.
As she told her story over a cup of tea in the airport in Ethiopia, tears ran down my face.
No one in their right mind voluntarily goes to places totally off-grid, totally removed from the basic accommodations of modern society, totally removed from any level of comfort... no one goes there, but for the grace of God.
We are all a little scared to stare poverty in the face. And we should be.
Poverty displays the very essence of our brokenness as people. Those living in it and the rest of us... avoiding it. We both operate out of poverty.
Jesus came to alleviate poverty. He didn't avoid it. In fact, in the New Testament, many times Jesus went out of his way- literally, through different villages and cities IN order to stare the broken, hurting, poor, widowed, ostracized people in the eyes. He looked poverty in the face, in order to give hope. Other times, he went out of his way to teach those with wealth what it truly looked like to follow him. To give away possessions, and more importantly, to be willing to follow His lead even when it meant personal comfort would be diminished. He knew that people were either impoverished in their spirit or in their possessions. A lack of faith or a lack of bread were the same in His eyes-
and he sought to shine new life into both kinds of people.
Abby, the 15-year-old younger sister who held her big sister's hand while she threw-up all night next to the Nile river, wrote this about the experience in her blog:
Everyone was forced to face their biggest fear. For Jane it was throwing up, for mom it was seeing a snake head right toward them...
I write this not to warn you of snakes or getting sick in the middle of the night in Africa but rather to say that God walks us through our greatest fears sometimes to show us that he is so much bigger, so much greater, than anything we could ever understand. Wow, what a comforting thought. What a loving God. What a great savior. To God alone be the glory!
We go where God sends us. To the least of these. And the truth is: we're mostly too scared and too selfish to do this on our own. But God 'walks us through our greatest fears.'
So that at the end of the day, I do not stand here a proud girl, telling you of all the amazing things I did to serve the poor...
I stand here as a girl who prayed for a UN helicopter to come rescue me. And instead, found a Savior who gave me strength, comfort and overflowing power and love to stare poverty in the face and at the end of the day- to sleep through the storm.
there, but for the grace of God, go I
Be a part of ending poverty. Join me in seeing One Village Transformed.
South Sudan: Part 2 One of my favorite historians, Thomas Cahill, has a book series entitled The Hinges of History in which he tells the stories of certain groups of people throughout civilization who have, in essence, changed the course of history for the better. I fell in love with these books before I ever got to page one; the preface of the series still brings a smile to my face and gives me pause for hope. The opening lines read:
We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage- almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain, assembled in sequence. And surely this is, often enough, an adequate description. But history is also the narratives of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by circumstance.
... The great gift-givers, arriving in the moment of crisis, provided for transition, for transformation, and even for transfiguration, leaving us a world more varied and complex, more awesome and delightful, more beautiful and strong than the one they had found.
These are the narratives of grace and hope that I found being bestowed upon the world by great 'gift-givers' on my short trip to South Sudan with World Concern.
Meet Helen. She was born and raised in South Sudan and works for World Concern in Kuajok, Warrap State, South Sudan.
She has two young children and a husband who she has left behind, for a season, in order to be a part of the work World Concern is doing in Kuajok. One of the things I love most about the work WC does is that it employs locally if at all possible. Helen is a great example of this. Not only does she serve people, but she also brings in a living-wage income for her own family. This is invaluable when working with the world's most poor; providing employment opportunities, which in turn develops dignity in the individual and family. Opportunity is always better than a hand out. It's the concept of short-term change versus long-term sustainability. Beyond emergency aid situations, World Concern is leading the way in opportunities for true and lasting change in impoverished villages. Helen is a perfect example.
Helen is quiet and gentle, her smile girlish and perfectly kind. Her job is to work with the villagers overseeing micro-financing and supplying loans for those starting their business in the village market of Kuajok. She does her job with confidant dignity and beauty. Walking through the village with her, was like walking with the most popular girl in high school. She knew everyone and she had everyone's respect. The picture above is of Helen leading us through the market. Yes, that's the market.
She knows every persons name. And, as a financial supporter of World Concern, I was delighted to see that she could tell us what each person was given through a micro-finanace loan provided by WC. Each hut has something different. Mostly, families used their micro-finanace loans to purchase plastic chairs, tables to display their goods, tea kettles to start their tea-houses or large nets for fishing. Recipients of micro-finance loans purchase their products from World Concern at 60% of the actual cost and they finance it through a micro-finanace loan that WC provides. They then have between 3-6 months to repay their small loans. And this is life-giving for the people of Kuajok because many of them have nothing.
Kuajok a community largely built and funded by the UN as a transition town for refugees. Basically, if you live in Khartoum, where you have spent years facing murder and torture because of your religion, you escape with your lives... and that's it. You head to Abeyei. But the town of Abeyei is at the heart of the border dispute between the north and south... so you get bombed there too. Finally- you head to Kuajok. The place the UN and international communities have set up as a haven and refuge for those bombed out of their homeland.
We spent the night at a small hostile in the village. As we sat, sipping bottles of coke after a long, hot day, three small boys ran in through the front-gate lined with grimacing barbed-wire. You could see only the outlines of their small bodies and their eyes piercing through the dark. They couldn't have been much older than my Annie. Five, maybe six years old. Their hands fumbled through the trash can and pulled out the first thing they touched. The watermelon rind that the NGO workers from the World Food Program had just left behind. Without hesitation, they shoved it in their mouths eating- attacking the food as fast as they could. They made it less than a minute before the hotel staff saw them and yelled at them to get away.
How do you eat after that?
Sustainable Change Enter World Concern and the sweet spirit of Helen and the other amazing staffers. Yes, they meet families in their darkest moments and provide basic aide like nutra-butter and other life-saving essentials for hungry children like that. But they also provide the tools, savings groups, education classes, emergency aid, and microfinance loans that these people need to truly be able to start over again. They focus on helping the entire community pull itself up out of poverty.
Meet a young farmer! We met this boy and his mother outside of the village of Kuajok. He looks serious because he has just finished showing us how he plants the seeds for the family crops. He plants each seed with pride and precision. The seeds are purchased and (often matched) from World Concern. Again- purchased because instilling dignity in people occurs when we enable them to help themselves. We travel through corn fields to reach the boy and his mother who are overjoyed to see Julius, an incredibly intelligent Kenyan man who runs the World Concern operations in Kuajok. Before we disappear in corn stalks we hear her voice. She is asking for more seed. Something new to plant. Julius tells her there isn't any left- he will have to check and see if he can make something happen.
Meet Julius. Like many other World Concern staffers in South Sudan, he is a Kenyan, away from his wife and children serving the people in South Sudan because he believes in being an agent of change. "People are grateful for seed," he says as we walk through a tiny trail of sorghum, "It does not matter if you have money here... there is nothing to buy. What matters is if you have food. If you have no money, but you have a crop, you can live."
One day money will matter to this village of people, but now, seeds are more important he says. Food trumps everything. And this boy and his mother work with their bare hands and feet every day of the year to make sure their crops are properly tended to.
World Concern has helped over 250 families in Kuajok purchase ox-plows. Ox plows mean that boys like him don't have to get on their hands and knees to work the fields... at least not always. Julius and his team distribute ox-plows and help villagers know what types of seed to plant and how to plant more effectively. On top of everything else Julius does- he and his team have started the first community bank in Kuajok AND taught grown men and women how to start a savings group. There are over 150 savings groups that have started because of the work World Concern is doing on the ground- and this translates into more people being able to buy more ox-plows!
Opportunity= Hope We had the privilege of meeting with the Minister of Agriculture for Warrup State while in Kuajok. A stately, kind-hearted, hard-working man who requested hundreds more ox-plows from World Concern. "Ox-plows," he said, "Are the way for a future for our people. We need more ox-plows. We also need more seed. The state would like to partner with World Concern to help our people eat."
He said it as a statement- not a question. It was simply, "This is what we need. Get your people on it and let's make it happen. Let's be partners."
And I suppose that's why people like me go to places like that.
To come back home and tell you that they need more ox-plows. To tell you that there are little boys eating watermelon rinds out of trash cans. To tell you that the day before we were at the market in Kuajok, a mother had a baby and left it, umbilical cord and all, in the market because she could not feed it. To tell you that some mother's are desperate enough to give you, a complete stranger, their child- if you will only feed it. To tell you that there are people dying because they do not have food. And this is not to make you or I feel guilty, as some people complain, this is just the plain ole' fashioned truth.
It's real. It's happening. Feel guilty if you like...
or freaking do something about it.
Girls like me...
go to places like that to come back and say
We need more seeds.
We need more ox-plows.
And the Minister of Agriculture in Warrup State needs about seven computers for his staff members!
We need money to fund the people on the ground- working around the clock to create lasting change in the most impoverished places.
Change does not happen over night. It's maddening to think that the answer to the little boys eating out of trash cans is an ox-plow and seeds. I'd rather like to think we can scoop them up, feed them and then put them on a ship to countries where adoptive families will take them in. And in some situations, in some countries, this is part of the answer but not the whole answer
The hard truth is that the real answer lies in addressing long-term solutions to end poverty versus short-term hand-outs.
For a girl who likes to fix things- like immediately this seems like cruel and unusual punishment. But the truth remains: An ox-plow changes a village; a white girl from the west giving a single hand-out does not.
So, ox-plow it is!
Goats! Chickens! Pigs!
(And yes, Sherri and Kendrick- fish fingerlings!)
"A time of crisis is not just a time of anxiety and worry. It gives a chance, an opportunity, to choose well or to choose badly."
-Archbishop Desmund TuTu
World Concern is seeking out and partnering with the world's most poor to create sustainable change and bring hope to the most desperate. You can support a village in South Sudan today. Or buy on ox-plow for a village. Or a clean water well. Or a goat, chicken, pig...
You get the picture. Be a part of re-writing the history of places like Kuajok, South Sudan. Give generously today.