Last week we spent a whirlwind weekend out west – first a Vegas reunion of sorts with some of our oldest and dearest soul sisters and brothers (yes, the original house church of Cold Tangerines regard) and then a hop over the desert to dip our toes in the ocean. It was glorious – every second of it. Sure, Vegas will always be weird (and a little sad – am I right?) but it didn’t matter where we were because we were together, finally, after four long years apart. Yes, yes. It was glorious and I am sure there is a separate post brewing in my heart, one I will spill with you anther time. Today is about the ocean. And Brittani. And about how incredibly perfect it is, the way her eyes match the color of the sea. What a lucky, lucky gal. It was an honor to spend some time shooting her in Newport Beach, California – doing my best to capture her in her current season of life: one that is brave and unbridled and ambitious and open. Brittani – thanks for being brave with me and sharing your spirit with us all!
Child slavery on Ghana’s Lake Volta is brutal: International Justice Mission (IJM) investigators met children as young as 4 forced to work in brutal conditions. They saw children with “distended stomachs, scars from beatings and physical abuse, skin diseases, hair falling out, and open sores and wounds.” Slave owners work them tirelessly without food and make even the smallest children dive deep to untangle nets, often leading to drowning. Guys, THIS is why we have to care, why we have to speak up, why we have to do something – if not us, who? If not now, when?
City of Refuge Ministries (CORM) is the nonprofit closet to my heart, and they recently partnered with another awesome organization, IJM, to expand their reach for rescue even farther. CORM’s work in Ghana is life-changing. Their primary efforts extend to identify children who have been forced into slavery within the fishing industry along Lake Volta. You can learn more about this situation in IJM’s field report here. They then work to free them and provide desperately needed aftercare. They provide safe houses for children otherwise abandoned, food, education, healing, and most of all, love. I have traveled there and witnessed the transformation myself, watching children who had been in terribly abusive circumstances only months earlier, now laughing and eating and running and playing together. I have seen with my own eyes what hope can do. It changes everything. And it is exactly what CORM is providing to children otherwise forgotten.
Which is why I want to invite you to see what hope looks like, too. Because I promise you, once you do, everything changes for you as well. When you step into the story of child rescue, your whole world changes. Hope means you have what it takes to shift the actual life of another. It means you get to use your very own hands, and feet, and body and spirit to alter the way the world works. Hope is this thing we all foster inside of us, it is the great equalizer because it doesn’t matter what your bank account balance is, you have something to give. You have your voice, and your social platforms, and once your heart is captivated by the story of these precious children who need you, you have your conviction. And that is all it takes to transform this story from one of hopelessness to one brimming over with hope.
At the end of this month, IJM is planning to rescue eight children they have identified to be trapped in slavery and place them at CORM for aftercare. CORM will need your help to sponsor these children so they can provide adequate nutrition, housing, and opportunities for education and healing.
And so I am asking you to care about this. I am asking you to let your walls down and allow the reality of these children to seep into the deep wells of your heart. Let it churn up your desire for justice. Let it make you mad. Because it isn’t right, what these innocents are forced to do. And us, together, we hold the key that can end it. You already have the key within you, won’t you consider using it to free the chains of children?
Say something. Speak up. Share this post, or this one, or this one, and tell your community about what is happening. Invite them to be a part of the story as well. Invite them to use their keys to help free these children too. It takes all of us. It doesn’t need to be aggressive, or shaming – the story of hope is so much more beautiful than that. What if we chose to cast a vision of what could be – of what the life of these kids can look like after intervention and healing.
Give. Give generously. Give creatively. Give with the knowledge that your every dollar is going to literally change the life of a child. I have been there and seen exactly what our dollars can do to restore these children! Donate securely now.
Engage. Let yourself dream. What can you do to bring hope? What does it look like for you to be an advocate? How it looks for you will look completely different than how it looks for me, or your sister, or your pastor. That is the utter beauty of humanity – that we can all be cut from the same cloth and yet composed of such diverse threads. Consider what it looks like to bring the best of YOU to the child trafficking conversation.
I leave you with this letter from the IJM Senior Investigator, who remarks on why his field investigation into Ghana was the single hardest assignment in his 30-year career. I hope it sheds some light on the situation and why we so desperately need you to care about this with us.
Next month we will celebrate eleven years of marriage together. Eleven years is sort of an odd number to make a big deal out of, I realize, but it’s a number that holds great significance for me. My own parents’ marriage failed at year eleven. I was nine, my brother seven, when they separated and forever shifted the way our family worked.
This anniversary has haunted me since, in a way. I’m so thankful to have a marriage I want to fight for – one I feel secure and confident in. I’m so thankful to wake every morning to the man I am crazy about and can wholly love despite the tiny annoyances we married folk daily bestow upon our partners. He may drive me crazy sometimes (hello towels on the floor – there’s a hook for that!) but at the end of the long, long days full of meetings and decisions and darling tiny ever-needy children, he’s the one I’m crazy about. What a gift. I know this isn’t everyone’s story. I know how lucky I am.
But year eleven, it scares me. My parents, whom I regarded as super heroes until age … well, I guess I still do in many ways … they stopped being married at this point in their lives. It’s hard (impossible?) not to hold the two love stories up to one another, to analyze, compare, try to sort it all out. My love story has reached the year my parents encountered a plot twist in theirs, and so from here on out I am in uncharted territory. My husband and I, we are walking the path I haven’t seen walked before, one I didn’t know existed from age nine on.
Our marriage isn’t perfect, because perfect isn’t real – and even if it were, how boring would that be? Our marriage is made up of mistakes and edges worn raw with learning the hard way. It’s pages are looking less like the shiny ones of the newly-wed fairytale. Instead, our pages now hold some history, some life – lived. They are dog-eared and underlined, some are torn out, and others are written all over. His handwriting and mine, they are all over the pages of our story now.
And this is why I know we will make it to year twelve, that mystical and uncharted number: because we are in it, together. This isn’t my marriage. And it isn’t his. Page after page showcases the penned in, smeared and smudged attempts to rewrite, reimagine, redefine the possibility of us. Our story is happening. It is alive. We are writing it, alongside the Great Author, in this divine and inexplainable intimacy of life.
Year eleven is coming. I am learning to embrace it with the hope that there are years, and years, and years beyond it and with the determination to keep writing down our story, day after day, by the choices I make to love and to trust. The gift in it for me is that while I am busy writing it down, so is he. As I lift my eyes to watch him, the way he lives and loves, the tenderness with which he lifts our daughter from her crib and sings her back to sleep at 3 in the morning and the way he reads to our son before bedtime prayers – the way he sweeps his thumb across my forehead to push back a strand of my hair so he can better see me – he is writing the story too.
We are in this, together. And there are a lifetime of pages ahead of us.
Yesterday I read an account that left me emptied and weak, like a brittle eggshell once the life inside has hatched. I could barely walk, or think, I was so consumed with the feelings of helplessness and grief. After reading last week about the ten year old girl in Nigeria who was made to self-detinate a bomb attached to her body in a public square (killing herself and nineteen other innocents) I have been walking around with these words in my head. Boko Haram. Nigeria. Women. Bring back our girls. Where are the advocates? Who do we turn to? And then yesterday, reports began trickling in about the deadliest attacks to date in Borno State, Nigeria – both credited to Boko Haram. This satellite image published by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch show the devastation:
(the red dots represent buildings and vegetation before the attacks)
As the reality of the loss began to sink in, I opened my facebook feed, searching for posts and common outcry. But there was nothing. No one was saying anything about it. There were plenty of posts on the Oscar noms and other celeb news, but nothing whatsoever about the massive war crimes that had just wiped out two entire villages. Our sister, Nigeria, is being violated right before our eyes, and we are doing nothing to stop it. Why is this? I know the people I’m connected to via social media – they are smart, caring, involved people who often use the feeds as platforms for justice. Where were they yesterday? Why was no one aligning themselves with this cause?
I don’t really have the answers. It seems to be a similar problem to last month’s school bombing in Pakistan, where 132 people, mostly children, were murdered. It was Christmas. As a country we had just walked through Ferguson and Eric Garner and we were ready for something lighter and easier to swallow. We were weary of the sorrow, the weight of reality too much to bear, and I wonder if we simply shut down emotionally.
I don’t like to be the downer here, I really consider myself a (realistic) optimist. I actually believe that the world can get better (I know that makes some of you snicker and suggest that I am just still too young to know.) But – I have allowed myself to see tragedy – I have faced it, felt it, embraced that it is true about life on this planet. I just choose to believe that ultimately, love wins. Because I have seen that as well. I have allowed myself to see the love, winning, also. And this gives me hope. It fuels the fire in my belly to see all things made new.
But it takes our blood, sweat, and tears. It takes our hope, prayers, and voices. It takes our hands and feet. It takes our time, energy, finances. Love wins by the choices we make and what we do with what we have.
I am not one who believes that we humans are inherently evil. I think we are lovely, good, precious creatures. I think at our best, we are love incarnated. But I’m not naive – I know we are capable of grievous evils.
I keep looking at this photo, crying as I try to imagine what these children have just seen, felt, and experienced. These sweet children. I wish I could reach into this photograph and hold them.
I can’t fix this. We can’t change people. The politicians behind Boko Haram have masterfully preyed on the weak and desperate, using fear, threats, religion and promises of wealth to motivate them to do horrible things. There is no simple answer to solve this problem, of course. But, these are crimes against humanity – they are crimes against HUMANITY – and we are doing nothing to stop them.
Nigeria is our sister, and she is screaming in pain. Why aren’t we listening?
All I wanted to do yesterday was to curl up under a blanket and let the pain disappear. But I couldn’t do that. And so I lit a candle, a tiny flame that flickered all day long – a testament of what had happened and a promise to remember my sister. I kept drifting to the woman, Anjou, that I’d met a few weeks ago at the Pak n Mail around the corner from my house. I’d been running errands all day, and stopped in with a package to ship, and she’d met me with a huge beautiful smile and thick African accent. In getting to know her, she shared that she was from Nigeria and that her family was still there.
As I watched the flame sparking, her voice was in my head and I prayed hard, short prayers for her family, for her heart, (and I realize Nigeria is a big place, and that there are many parts of it that are not currently invaded with islamic extremists, but she is the flesh and blood person I can carry in my mind as I read these stories.)
I prayed, but it wasn’t enough – there was an unrest in my heart. I had to see her. Look, I know it seems weird, but I just needed to connect and see her and somehow relay to her that I was not shutting my eyes to Nigeria. So after I dropped Mercy at school, I stopped in at the shop. As she came around the corner, I tried really hard to keep it together, not wanting to freak her out in case she did not remember me at all. But she did, and she smiled at me, and I told her I had been thinking about her and just wanted to check in. I asked about her family (they are okay) and she shared about her heart (which is worried and weary.) I left the shop feeling more connected to my sister, more rooted in the story happening there, and more motivated than ever to speak up for her.
If you, like me, would like to find ways to use what we have to combat fear with love in Nigeria, here is a list of reputable resources. It’s not a solution, but it’s a start.
What is Boko Haram: Great, simple start to understanding this militant Islamic group.
CRS Nigeria: CRS employs an integrated approach to help poor and vulnerable people lead full and productive lives.
I tried to research more organizations and was shocked to see that there isn’t more relief involvement in Nigeria. If you happen to know of more, please link and comment!
At the end of last year I had the chance to travel to California for a speaking event and creative workshop. While there I also got to photograph this amazing family, who happen to be some of our very dearest friends. Annette and Andrew have known us since our early married days in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We were all transplants from different states, brought together to the little midwest city by career, calling, and chance. I like to think that God had a bit to do with it, as well. My husband describes Andrew as an oak tree friend – he is stable and loyal and trustworthy – deeply grounded and wise. And Annette, well, she is somehow able to be wise and insightful, incredibly generous and kind, and sharply witty all at once. She also has basically the best sense of style of anyone I’ve ever met. Together we have walked through countless changes, our lives ebbing and flowing as we moved cross-country more than once, became parents, and essentially grew up. I wouldn’t be who I am today without them in my life, and I know I’m not the only one who could say the same.
So dearest Annette and Andrew, together with your precious children playing and splashing at one of your favorite beach spots, may these memories serves as anchors for you in wilder waters. This space, these moments, are a reflection of your truest selves. Love you guys!