The Fat Lady

Dear Internet,

We’re baaaaaaack!  Having been stuck in a rut of non-communication since January due to limited internet access in Cuba, and, consequently, paralyzed by how much there is to share about the last six weeks, we’re working hard on Candy Crush to process and sort through everything. So much to tell. So little blog space. So much magazine to write.  Continue reading The Fat Lady

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Gate F12. Don’t tell.

HEY! We are at the airport in Miami, and after fielding phone calls from worried family members, I thought I’d share a little about what we learned this week, what we’ll be doing, and how it’s all going to work.

To travel to Cuba, we needed two permissions—one from the US government, and one from the Cuban government. Through our host ministry (the org we are writing about for World Next Door), we got a religious license from the US government to travel to Cuba, and this involved one of our Cuban host pastors writing a letter of sponsorship.

Entering Cuba has nothing to do with the religious license from the US, and in fact we have to just sort of conceal the religious license and enter Cuba through the tourist visa we applied for and received from the Cuban government.  The Cuban government is not so into our host ministry due to their work toward religious freedoms and bypassing the Council of Churches which confiscated 8 of 10 containers of Bibles the last time they came through, so if we entered Cuba on a religious visa as other sometimes do, we’d likely be watched or followed, potentially putting the ministry at risk on the ground in Cuba. Continue reading Gate F12. Don’t tell.

Food Hospitality, or Romanticizing Indulgence

This is the time of year I review old things and resolve to do new things.  I was really into this in, like, 2009 and other random years but didn’t feel compelled to list out every crazy thing I did in 2013, because actually everything I did was crazy.

The smaller task would be to list out all the beautifully ordinary moments that existed in the year. Things that come to mind: grilled pizza on the twinkle-lit deck this summer, meaningful meals with friends between each trip, the one or two football games we were able to catch wrapped in blankets with chili in the crockpot, hanging four strands of snowflake lights on our sliding door and watching the snow pile up, snuggles with nieces, selecting our favorite photos to send as a thank-yous to helpful friends, and feeling my little nephew kick.

I am also totally clueless about 2014, so I have not resolved to anything yet. When we return from Cuba, our fellowship with World Next Door will be over, and beyond March is a giant question mark. All my resolutions this year would be all the previous years’ resolutions combined, and also the ordinary ones like clean eating and exercise.

But last night as I was stuffing face in this Cuban pizza shop in Miami, Continue reading Food Hospitality, or Romanticizing Indulgence

Blizzard Avoidance.

Hey, all. I am writing this at the last second as we are in the air to Miami on the second-to-last flight out of Indianapolis before snowpocolypse hits the midwest.

Seriously, look:

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And furthermore, look:

1414_snowmap

See where it says the number 14? THAT’S MY TOWN, Y’ALLS! The low tonight is -17 in Indy, and the High tomorrow is -15. We are expecting a foot of snow. In Miami? A balmy 87 or something tomorrow, then, like, 63 when the cold front comes through. I know. You want me to shut it.

Our escape did not come easy, though. American Airlines told us yesterday as we begged to move our Sunday flight to Saturday that they were sorry, there had been no alert issued, but we were welcome to call every hour. By this morning? A total alert, and we could leave in 4 hours as every flight after 6p would be canceled. Our whole reason for going to Miami was to attend a Monday morning meeting at the organization’s headquarters, to plan the projects we would be visiting in Cuba and to meet the key leaders. The soonest departure after the storm would be Tuesday, although American Airlines projected NEXT FRIDAY.

We kicked it into high gear, cleaning, making arrival arrangements and banging our heads on walls as we packed. We are allotted only 44lbs total from Miami to Cuba, including checked bags and carry-on, making it a pack-weigh-pack-weigh-pack-weigh morning. In the end, it turns out the camera and computer equipment weigh as much as SIX WEEKS WORTH OF EVERYTHING ELSE!

Travel whining aside, I have two major things to share. Wait. Three.

First thing: The Nepal issue of World Next Door is available for download! Remember all those intense updates about undercover brothels and Himalayan hikes and swarms of monkeys and adorable kids? THIS IS THAT ISSUE! The absolute best way to view the content (because it’s the most fun an interactive) is on a tablet or smart phone. But if you don’t have a tablet, don’t worry, you. The entire magazine is available on our website. The first image is a link to the download, and the second image is a link to the online content. Treat yo’self with one!

WND Nepal Ad

Nepal Web Content

Second thing: The Las Vegas issue of World Next Door will be ready for download in Februrary. Remember all those intense updates about brothels and strip clubs and Christians and cupcakes? THIS WILL BE THAT ISSUE!  I have to remind you about the download now, because…

Third thing: WE ARE GOING TO CUBA! And we won’t have easy access to internet. The minimal access to internet we’ll have will likely be available by dial-up on a few hotel PCs.  No real-time Instagram, though you can bet I’ll be later-gramming when I get back. No Facebook. Real time blogging? I have no idea.

This is our last stop on the World Next Door fellowship year, which blows my mind, and we are partnering with an organization called ECHO Cuba. The headquarters are in Miami, and that’s where we’ll spend the week learning about the organization before flying out to Cuba on Feb 11th. We know very little about the work they do in-country, which is why it was so important to catch them at this Monday first-of-the-year planning meeting! They have humanitarian projects going on all over the country, and their mission is to grow the local Cuban church, which exists underground in some parts. We know they facilitate pastoral training and small-group mission trips. We can’t wait to see what all they have in store for us, and we really hope it includes an airport pick-up and a host family in Miami :)

We do know we’ll be staying with a local Pastor and his family, and we know the itinerary is carefully planned with mandated tourist activities during the first week to reduce any suspicions :)  We think that sounds fantastic.

We’ve been to Cuba before, but only for a week and on a vacation, so we expect this to be a very different experience. We loved it though, and we’ve been counting down the days until we got to come back, so we’re thankful for whatever it is that lies ahead!

Thanks for sending us and journeying with us, friends. It’s been one spectacular year!

Jeff & Brooke

*We are now in Miami and my hair is instantly curly and all our bags made it and we’ve been claimed by our new friend Dulce and her little dog and we have a place to sleep and we are blasting the AC and watching the Colts and eating pizza. And those are all the things that have happened so far in Miami ;)

Creating Kinship With Gangbangers and Sex Workers

*This post was written while on assignment with World Next Door: a free digital social justice travel magazine. Check out our website (www.worldnextdoor.org) for more information and download our current issue! This blog became an excerpt of this feature story our Las Vegas magazine issue about The Cupcake Girls, published in February 2014.

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So. I wrote a blog last week about those Christians and these strip clubs. I wrote it to my normal tens of readers and to those 62 people who are funding our year with World Next Door, but it sparked a lot of discussion and sharing.

In the meantime, I watched a documentary on Father Greg Boyle and Homeboy Industries and their work with felons and ex-gang members. It talked not just about the work we do in the margins, but about actually creating a kinship with those we are seeking to serve. So I offer this part of our process, because Father Greg nails it in the end:

We’ve met  women in all stages here in Las Vegas— young and old, pockets-lined and dirt poor, proud and satisfied, discouraged and discontented and fearful. We’ve met mothers living double lives, and runaway teenagers posing as adults, and women living the exact life they want, and women who are on, like, plan E.

As Jeff and I process each story and share our experience with others, we keep running into to the same questions:

Was she trafficked?
Is she allowed to leave?
Was she abused?
Is she on drugs?
Wait. Was she forced to be on drugs? Did they addict her?
Could she leave if she wanted to?
Does she make a lot of money?
Does she have kids?
Is she in school?
Is she bringing home money?

We provide each answer, and then we mull it around a little trying to understand. Trying to understand her choices against our own, maybe? Trying to figure out our level of empathy? Determining whether or not we can see any part of ourselves in her?

And then I had an awful thought: What if we ask the questions because our compassion is qualified by the answers. What if we are measuring the lifestyle against the injustice to determine what type of love this person gets from us?

Does she get arms-length love?  Praying-from-afar love? Is she eligible for the minimal qualifying Jesus loves you because Jesus loves everybody love? Or does she get full-on, big, wet, sloppy kiss love? Does she get a one-armed hug or both arms with an extra squeeze?

It’s much easier, I think, to feel compassion toward an abused 14 y/o who ran away and got locked in a hotel room for 2 years; on a coke-addicted prostitute feeding an addiction that was forced onto her; on a young woman intercepted at a Nepali border station who thought she was on her way to a better life in India. I’d love those women with both arms, probably, drowning in compassion.

If she was vulnerable and exploited, I’m all in. That’s not fair, I think. It wasn’t her fault.

But what if the woman goes into the sex industry with both eyes open? What if she falls in love with a pimp and runs off with him to Texas? What if she can make more money at the strip clubs than she can selling her art projects or her chocolates and she just really likes bringing home $600- $4k per night. What if it’s totally her fault?

What then? What type of love, empathy or compassion does she get from me?

Here’s a good example. After support group last week, a friend described how she had  voluntarily entered in the sex industry but was locked in a hotel room six days a week for 20 hours a day— willingly, she thought, because of what the business had promised her: dental caps, breast implants, her own house, and a car. She didn’t realize until she came across an article on human trafficking that she was a sex slave. That her life looked exactly the same. She had been working for the promise of money, not actual money.

It turns out attention and cash are as strong and confining as any physical chain or deadbolt—only they’re more deceptive. A chain and deadbolt look like a chain and deadbolt, but attention and cash look a lot like success.

When my friend realized what was happening, she walked away. It wasn’t easy for her to do, but she found a way. Now, even as she works hard and earns success at a career she’s proud of, she fights the voice in her head that calls her back when her car payment is due and her account balance is low.

What if that was the voice I was fighting every day?  I fight voices of insignificance and insecurity and ingratitude, and the ones calling me toward the pastry counter, and the ones burrowing holes of bitterness in my heart.

But because her voices are different than mine, I would have easily sized her up on my vulnerability/exploitation scale and offered her a love, of like, 3 up front.

Now? After spending time with her and getting to know who she is? I would climb across the table and give her a real, true, both arms, wet and sloppy with a big kiss and hug love. I would give her a love of 10. Because she deserves that from me. She is worthy of that from me.

(I can’t wait to share more about my friend and her incredible journey in World Next Door’s February issue, by the way. If you’re into inspiring stories from unlikely people, download it.)

Here’s where it really hits home for me, though. It’s not just the sex industry we qualify our love for.

A person I love very much is lost in heroin.

Do you know how I would have described a heroin addict before someone I loved became one? Before someone to whom I have already attached value became one?

Irresponsible. Selfish. Dangerous. Cold-hearted. Scrawny. Malnourished. Criminal. Reckless. Negligent. Thoughtless. Scary.

Do you know how I would describe a heroin addict right this heartbreaking second?

Lonely. Sad. Scared. Lost. Ashamed. Kind.  Insecure. A pleaser. A follower. In desperate need of affirmation. Lovable.

Before a person I loved became a heroin addict, I’d have offered arms-length love with a whole lot of qualifiers and very little compassion. But when a person to whom I have already attached value is addicted to heroin, I only have more love. I feel desperate compassion.

Our measure of love toward sex workers (or any population in the margins) can’t be the circumstance they find themselves in, but in how much we value each person to begin with.

So. Back to Father Boyle and Homeboy Industries. I was watching a documentary and started reading his book called Tattoos on the Heart, and I came across this:

“The measure of your compassion lies not in your service of those in the margin, but in your willingness to see yourself in kinship with them.”

Yes, that.

Kinship is a blood relationship, you know.  So here’s the question: How are we related by blood to sex workers? Gang bangers? Heroin addicts?

How are we the same?

Here’s a start. We are all made in the image of Christ. We have innate value no matter what.  And it’s only through the blood of Christ any of us have sanctification.

Even you.
Even me.

So it can no longer be us and them. It’s only us.

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For more about our time in Las Vegas: click here
To download the most recent issue of World Next Door: click here

Thanksgiving, revised and expanded

It’s Thanksgiving time, and if I’m thankful for any one thing this year, it’s for the gift of relationship. This includes the new friends we’ve made across the world through World Next Door and for the old pals that somehow keep popping up all over the place.

Newer and further away: I’m thankful for the Nkuzi family in Rwanda who fed us and welcomed us and invited us into their grief; who trusted us to tread lightly and accepted our empathy as though it was enough. I’m thankful for all the dinner conversations with Peter and Fredrick and Nepo and Eriane and V for, like, the entire month of April in Rwanda. And I’m thankful for our friends Rachel and Ricardo who offered their home (and their liquor JUST KIDDING SORT OF) several times as a getaway. I am thankful for Katy and Alan, our Americans-in-the-field-with-kids people, who enriched our marriage and gave us a new picture of how we could do this if kids ever would enter the picture for us. I’m thankful for Mamsung who literally cared for our every whimsical need in Cambodia. (If you don’t know about her, click the link. You’ll thank me.) I’m thankful for our host family and 14 brothers and sisters in Nepal, who sang us to dinner and hugged us out every day. I’m thankful for Sarah and Kylie and Carlie and Kara in Nepal, who made us feel like we’d always been a part of their group and that there would be a piece missing when we left.  And for our beloved Cupcake Girls, with offers of Thanksgiving love and hospitality through show invites and dinner invites and all the laughing.

I am thankful for the trust of organizations like Tiny Hands and Cupcake Girls doing tricky work who allow us to tell their stories.

And of course, I’m thankful for the organization we write for: World Next Door (and the 62 people who funded us through World Next Door). WND is seeking out justice all over the world—looking for it, writing about it, exposing it—in the middle of tough injustices and laying everything out for all of us to be a part of through a free magazine. Free, you guys.

If you like what you’ve been reading in this space, please show us by downloading the World Next Door app and pass it on. These are the exact things World Next Door writes and publishes for free each month.

Those Christians. And These Strip Clubs.

*This post was written while on assignment with World Next Door: a digital social justice travel magazine. Check out our website (www.worldnextdoor.org) for more information and download our most recent issue! This blog became an excerpt of this feature story our Las Vegas magazine issue about The Cupcake Girls, published in February 2014.

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Well. We’re going on a cupcake-delivering-strip-club-run tomorrow. Jeff and I will stay in the car, of course. The point of all of this cupcaking is to build relationships, and bringing a couple of eager new photojournalists into the clubs just to see what happens, outside the context of relationship, sort of turns it into a side-show.  Plus, you have to serve on another Cupcake Girls committee for 90 days first, which we haven’t done. I guess “Eating Cupcakes” is not one of their other service areas, anyway. Blast!

That said, our second week has been filled with interviews and tag-alongs with various volunteers and staff within the Cupcake Girls, and each interaction has stretched us into new areas of growth and perspective.

Here’s the way it all works, we’ve discovered:

The Cupcake Girls knock on the door to a strip club or brothel with a box of cupcakes. Sometimes they’re invited inside—not to the club part, but to the behind-the-scenes part where the women hang out to get ready.  Along the way, they cupcake (see? I verbed it) bouncers and doormen and valet guys and bartenders and DJs until, as you might imagine, they become widely welcomed, and almost everyone looks forward to their visits. Because, really. Who doesn’t love a good cupcake?

Once inside, they talk about kids and pets and vacations; they talk about how hard it was to get to the club that night from all the flooding or traffic; they compare the best ways to apply perfume and lashes. They offer help with hair and makeup while the women get ready. And sometimes, they just sit and eat cupcakes together.

The Cupcake Girls, in turn, field a million questions with a smile and a laugh:

Are you guys lesbians?
Are you cosmetology students?
Do you take tips?

Funny, but a steely reflection of the assumption in this business—in this whole town, really—that nothing is free. You can’t even get a picture with Hello Kitty or Darth Vader on the corner without the expectation of a tip, the founder explained to us during orientation. There is always an agenda. Everything is a trick. Freedom is an illusion.

So, in walks a group of trendy-looking women with cupcakes and a bag full of products, and of course suspicion abounds.

We’re not lesbians.
We’re not cosmetology students.
We don’t take tips.
We’re just here to love on ya, they say. We offer support to women in the industry.

Awesome.
But it’s the last question that really breaks my heart:
Are you those Christians?

Which Christians could they be talking about? The ones who picketed clubs last week, or the ones who threw tracts inside? The ones who dropped off beanie babies and bibles with a church invite inside? The ones who condemned the city with giant billboards explaining how their lust is dragging them down to hell?

Are they talking about those Christians who want to save them, but don’t know their names or how many kids they have or what options they had to choose from? Or maybe the ones who stay on the other side of the giant invisible wall that separates them from this area of town, except for when they pour in to feed the homeless or something at Christmas. Those Christians?

Maybe they’re talking about those Christians who don’t know what to do with sex workers.  The ones who easily say, “Jesus loves you” from a distance, but never consider saying, “I love you” right up close.

I might be one of those Christians, I thought, who doesn’t know what to do with the sex workers. Honestly, I had never even considered the sex workers before. I had only recently considered the hungry and the homeless and the poor, the vulnerable kids and women in far away places, the oppressed and disabled.  The marginalized.

The marginalized.

Do you know what marginalized means? It means the powerless or unimportant people within a society or group. Confined to the outer limits of social standing. Pushing people to the edge of society by not allowing them a place within it.

Could it be that those Christians are the ones accidentally marginalizing sex workers?

It’s easier to say, “Jesus loves you” instead of “I love you,” Joy C, the Director of Cupcake Care, explained. “To separate ourselves in that way—offering third party love instead first person love. But when we say I love you, we glorify God, Christian or not.” Joy C (not to be confused with Joy H, the founder) arranges for the care of both industry women and volunteers through counseling, trainings and support groups.

So, No, the Cupcake Girls say. We are not those Christians. We’re a non-religious organization— and they are.

Because here’s the thing. If you are a Christ-follower, you don’t have to go into full-time ministry or label your work Christian. You don’t have to be a Christian something-or-other. If you are a Christian, no matter what your job is, YOU ARE ALREADY IN FULL-TIME MINISTRY. So no, I agree, they’re not those Christians. They’re these Christians. They’re the ones who love you right here in this club. They’re the ones who know your names and how many kids you have. They’re the ones making deposits of love without anyone even knowing. And they’re the ones walking out into the margins to do it.

So. Back to how it all works.

After they drop the cupcakes off and visit for a while—or in some cases, drop the cupcakes off for weeks and months until they’re finally invited in—they leave the girls with this: If you need anything, call me! And then they hand over their phone numbers.

Their actual phone numbers.

Each Cupcake Girls volunteer that visits a club (these volunteers are usually referred to as meet-up girls) can build an intentional relationship with up to five industry women. This means they’ll continue to go to that specific club and maintain ongoing relationship with those specific women each visit.  And each week they’ll reach out to the women individually outside the club, offering a kind thought like: Hey, just thinking about you—hope you’re having a good week, usually following up with: Let me know if you need anything!

Eventually, someone does need something. Moving assistance. A bed. Tutoring. A dental crown.  And the meet-up girl does everything in her power to provide those tangible needs through the Cupcake Girls resource network. This network is made up of doctors, dentists, lawyers, financial counselors, educational tutors, moving trucks, federal aid assistance, counselors, etc. The moment of follow-through is the moment the rubber meets the road, the moment when the industry woman realizes the meet-up girl is for real. They actually do care. The providing of the physical need widens the relational door a little bit and deepens the trust.  We watched this happen this week as Jeff was able to help one of the meet-up girls put together a bed for a single-mom’s 12 y/o.  And yeah, the Christian meet-up girl from the non-Christian organization said, “I love you,” as they hugged before we left.

Eventually the need-filling sometimes turns into coffee dates outside the club, and then sometimes even weekly support group attendance and more—but even if it doesn’t, the authentic love and support are still there, week after week, right where the women are: in the club.

So, No, to those who are asking. The Cupcake Girls doesn’t set out to pull women out of the industry. They support each woman wherever she is— both in the industry, or walking next to her as she navigates her way out. They add value to each life knowing that the value will inform the woman’s choices. Because here’s the other thing: Jesus did not wait until we had everything together to love us unconditionally. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

And so right there in the club, the Cupcake Girls love the women, simply because they’re lovable.

Also, we love God because he first loved us, right?

Could we maybe love them first, too?

I’m almost done, I promise.

We believe in the palms-up approach at World Next Door. Palms-up meaning that instead of arriving with all the answers, we learn from the people we are there to serve. We believe in saying to the outcast, the oppressed and the marginalized: You are better than me, let me serve you. Let me learn from you.

I know what you’re thinking: What could we (the American church) possibly learn from strippers, right?
But the Cupcake Girls is showing us, I think.

 

IN CONCLUSION (yes, it’s ending) I woke up this morning with this song on my heart:

Take it away, N. Nordeman:

Oh the days when I drew lines around my faith to keep you out, to keep me in, to keep it safe.
Oh the sense of my own self-entitlement to say who’s wrong, who won’t belong, or cannot stay.
Cause somebody somewhere decided we’d be better off divided.
And somehow, despite the damage done…

He says Come

There is room enough for all of us
Please come, the arms are open wide enough
Please come, our parts are never greater than the sum
This is the heart of the one who stands before the open door and bids us come.

Oh the times when I have failed to recognize how many chairs are gathered there around the feast.
To break the bread and break these boundaries that have kept us from our only common ground:
The invitation to sit down if we will come

Come from the best of humanity
Come from the depths of depravity
Come.

For the follow-up to this post: click here
For more about our time in Las Vegas: click here
To download the most recent issue of World Next Door: click here

On 101 y/o living prophets and things…

*This post was written while on assignment with World Next Door: a digital social justice travel magazine. Check out our website (www.worldnextdoor.org) for more information and download our most recent issue! All of the Nepal content can be found here.

When I asked how old she was, she answered 28. I looked at the translator and smiled, confused. This was the 101 year-old lady we’d seen dancing next to us at church. I knew for a fact she was not 28.

I’d mentioned to the pastor earlier in the week how surprised Jeff and I were to see an elderly woman dance and clap and sing to drums and an electric guitar for an hour-and-a-half with the entire congregation the previous Sunday.

“Yes!” the pastor had said, “She is 101. Her testimony is miraculous. Do you want to meet her? She lives at my house.”

So there we sat two weeks later with the pastor, our translator host dad, and our host mom doting over the woman everyone calls “Grandma” (who is clearly a tad bit older than 28).

“She is telling you when she was born in Christ,” the pastor explained, “She considers that to be her age. Twenty-eight years ago she accepted Christ when she was 72 years old. Today she is 101.”

We were sitting together in the room the pastor provides for Grandma. For the last two months she has been living there and praying for his congregation. This is what Grandma is known for. She prays day and night, waits for God to tell her where to go next, travels there, and sets up for weeks or months praying for the village, or the church, or anyone who comes to her for prayer, delivering whatever messages she hears from God.

“How does God speak to you?” I asked. Was it a vision? Scripture? Audible? Was it a feeling in her heart? I wondered how she knew for sure it was God, recalling spectacular dreams I’d had after bad Mexican food and anti-malarial medicine.

“Mostly I see the visions,” she answered. “Even yesterday I saw a vision while I was sleeping. I saw a glass shining so bright, like a star, and I could see a person raising his hand and blessing this land.”

She turned to the pastor. “As soon as possible I’d like to share this vision to the church,” she said, and he nodded.

This is her life’s work. For 28 years, she has gone into one district for about a month at a time—sometimes as many as 12 months—visiting different churches, wherever the Lord tells her to go, and prays for the people of the church. She declares things like, “God sent me to pray for the church and to pray for the people here. The Lord told me to go and tell the people of this church how much He loves them, how much He cares about the church and people of this nation.”

A modern day 101-year-old prophet, who considers herself to be 28. I’ll never meet a woman like this again, I thought.

“If the Lord said, tomorrow you go to that church or district and pray for the people there, I will immediately go.”

“But how are you sustained?” I asked.

The pastor was quick to answer, as his church is currently doing this, “Wherever she goes, God provides each and every need for her through the church. Whenever God speaks to her, she shares with the church and the church supports her. If she is already at one church and has a vision to go to another place, the church will send her.”

“Has she ever been scared or threatened?” Jeff asked.

“Never,” she answered, firmly.

“How did she come to know the Lord?” Jeff asked.

The Grandma smiled and her eyes sparkled. We watched about 10 minutes of animated facial expressions and gestures as the grandma rose to her knees speaking with excitement and conviction in Nepali. Then she was back down on the bed, her inflections matching her movements. We leaned in as she got very quiet and low, and then up on her knees again waving her hands in the air and saying, Hallelujah! before fluttering and circling like a bird.

We could not wait for the translation, and looked at the pastor like, Tell us! Tell us!

[Read the rest of this story here…]

 

Our host fam with the Grams
Our host fam with the Grams

*This and other stories like this are featured in the December issue of World Next Door Magazine, featuring Tiny Hands Nepal.

Welcome to Grace City

We’ve been here in Las Vegas on our current World Next Door assignment with Cupcake Girls for about a week. Having already been a not-so-secret fan of the Vegas for about a decade (what? there are other things to do here), and given that we’d have a car and familiar food, I did not imagine a cultural adjustment period.

But several things have left Jeff and I looking at each other at various times like: what world are we in?!

For example, our host family gets cheap tickets to several shows almost any night of the week, so they took us to a jaw-dropping a cappela group last night, where 5 humans created a jazz band with their mouths: a trombone, a bass, an entire drum set and an electric guitar, among other things.

On our way home, we listened as our host mom encouraged her 15 y/o son to share his garage band recordings of his own rap songs—which were actually pretty good! He likened himself to a mix Macklemore and Drake, and his mom was obviously proud of his ingenuity—lyrics and recordings all his own—though most parents I know would be laying this child at the alter in fear of what it all means. I appreciated her opposition to fear and her encouragement of his creative expression.

This, as we drove the overpass above the strip and looked down over the seedy industrial area just two streets over, passing giant glowing billboards of almost naked women—which turn no heads but the Midwestern ones—through Chinatown with it’s stacks-on-stacks-on-stacks of massage parlors, past Naked Pizza—which does not mean vegan pizza, by the way. We’d just eaten it the other night at the orientation. It’s the supposed best pizza around, has nothing to do with naked people, just a symbol of the city. When you want to order pizza in Las Vegas, these are the names of the pizza places. #nobigdeal #totallynormal

And this entire night after spending 12 hours driving to 4 different brothels delivering cupcakes to women the day before. I don’t know how you imagine the brothels in Las Vegas—actually, there are none in Las Vegas, because prostitution is only legal in certain counties—but I was not ready to see a tiny purple trailer in the middle of Death Valley, staffed by 50 y/o end-of-the-road women and owned by an elderly couple in their 80s. Sadness does not even begin to describe it. This particular brothel was no one’s plan A. This was where they ended up.

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Not all brothels were like that, though, and next week will be the strip clubs—a whole different game. For some, it’s a snowball effect of cash and attention. For others, the result of exploitation. Voluntary or not, pockets lined or dirt-poor, Las Vegas Boulevard headliner or the little purple trailer, many stand by the work as legitimate with a display of pained dignity. Pained because it’s a hard sell to most, and it’s their value on the line.

People ask all the time—to the Cupcake Girls staff transplants and their families from Michigan and Connecticut and Massachusetts, to us as we prepared to leave for this assignment, even we asked the Christ-following volunteers with teen kids who live in Vegas—how can you live here? Wouldn’t it affect you? And your kids? Doesn’t it wear on you over time?

But then it dawned on me what I shouted from the rooftops only a month ago when Jeff was undercover with Tiny Hands at the brothels in Nepal:

“The group had prayed before beginning the operations. In doing so, they drew upon the resources of a God who was already present in that place. God was in the brothel or dance club before this group had ever arrived and He would remain there long after this group left. The people and places they’d encounter were as much a part of God’s creation as any others, and God had not surrendered them to anyone, not even to the traffickers Vegas.

I knew that He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4). If our faith was worth anything at all, then it had to be stronger than whatever darkness it might encounter along the way. We couldn’t remain afraid, indifferent or inactive in the face of human slavery oppression of any kind.

I knew that if one girl was to be freed due to the investigative work of these men Cupcake sharing of these women, it was because the people with the power and influence she lacked would also be people of goodwill and courage.

God cares about the women, and He has equipped the human race with everything we need— time, education, resources, cash, skills, manpower and brain capacity—to end this injustice. It is we who have not responded.”

So I look at Vegas. At the glitzy strip and the seedy industrial area, at the famous TV brothels and the tiny purple trailers, at the disproportionately small amount of voluntary workers in the midst of so many enslaved—all doing the best they can to maintain their value despite their own choices and the choices of others forced upon them, and I wonder:

Is this the best the body of Christ has to offer Las Vegas?

Raised eyebrows and fear?

In response to question everyone asks about how can we be in Vegas, I offer this one: How can we not be in Vegas?!

What I’ve seen in a week is that Cupcake Girls is offering love with no strings attached. Not love with evangelism. Not love if you leave the industry. Not love from a distance. Love right there next to her just because she has value.

In less than a week, my perspective has shifted from “fun city” when I arrived, to “sin city” when we started poking around the less than glitzy areas, and then flipped to the digital negative when our host mom sat down with us on the first night and said: Welcome to Grace City.

Vegas and Jesus co-exist, you guys (as quoted by myself back in 2007 when I was Myspace blogging- both nailing it and discrediting myself in the same blog. Wink.)

Cared For: In which tiny kids out me, emotionally

*This post was written while on assignment with World Next Door: a digital social justice travel magazine. Check out our website (www.worldnextdoor.org) for more information and download our most recent issue! All of the Nepal content can be found here.

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It was about halfway through our time with Tiny Hands in Nepal that I discovered a sweet spot tucked away their ministry. I was so dazzled by the anti-trafficking work detailed in the previous article—the border stations and interceptions, maps, analytics and all things undercover—that I sort of forgot about everything else, like how the ministry started in the first place: children’s homes.

Before we were scheduled to visit one of the homes, I flipped through a stack of old newsletters and magazines produced by Tiny Hands throughout the years and read that the founder, John, had originally established Tiny Hands as an organization caring for orphaned and abandoned street children. He launched the ministry after he noticed a stark contrast between street kids in Kathmandu and the smiling, laughing, singing, dancing kids of a local organization’s family-style children’s home. He determined to find those who need help the most—vulnerable orphaned or abandoned kids on the streets—and use the best strategies, the most qualified people, and with a “do much with little” philosophy.

Tiny Hands opened their first children’s home in 2003 as a family, not an orphanage, which I thought was interesting. My image of a children’s home had always been a gaggle of stray kids collected together and organized by age and sheltered until they were either adopted or turned 18. But kids in Tiny Hands’ homes were not waiting for adoption or shoring up dreams of a future family—the home in itself was a family. They had two parents who were called to serve them attentively and individually, a quality education in both Nepali and English at a nearby school, spiritual nurturing, health care, protection, solid nutrition, games, laughter, fun and on-target development.

So that was the plan. Tiny Hands opened that first home, and then grew a handful of additional homes in Kathmandu,  Pokhara and Chitwan caring for Nepal’s orphaned and abandoned kids.

It was only through the work with vulnerable kids, however, that John became aware of a more desperate injustice: sex-trafficking. Girls and kids were harvested from villages and streets all around him and taken across the Nepal/India borders for the purpose of sexual slavery. Quickly, victims of trafficking moved to the top of the list as “those who need help most” in addition to orphaned or abandoned street kids (who are themselves at risk of being sucked into the feeder system of the sex trade simply by being vulnerable) and the organization began specific anti-trafficking initiatives.

Ultimately, I understood, it wasn’t about the specific issue. The entire vision of Tiny Hands follows a few commands of Christ: love your neighbor as yourself, and whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me. If you found yourself alone on the street or without parents, would you be desperate for someone to help? Then Tiny Hands would be desperate to help. If you were kidnapped and raped, would you be desperate for someone to find the courage and conviction to save you? Then Tiny Hands would be desperate to find the girls and save them.

Tiny Hands is living this philosophy out, in addition to their sex-trafficking programs, within their ten children’s homes serving a total of 138 kids.

How could we have overlooked this?!

But I imagine it happens all the time. There are no blockbuster movies starring Liam Neeson about children’s homes. The injustice and responses aren’t as dramatic as trafficking. It’s not so glamorous, raising 14 kids that aren’t your own for life. And what would the title be called? Cared For.

This movie would feature early morning wake-ups, preparing a ton of breakfast, wetting down rogue hairs on an eight-year-old, morning prayers, packing book bags, socks and uniforms and bow ties and ponytails and braids and shoe-tying, walking several kids to several different schools, laundry, parent conferences, more food, homework, lots of math and spelling help, playtime, singing time, devotions, dinner, teeth-brushing, hair-undoing, night time prayers, uniform ironing, sock pairing, shoe-lining and several deep breaths.

Riveting.

The thing is, it was riveting when I saw it in action. And the tiny little faces that welcomed me into Tiny Hands’ Bethany Home are just as valuable, precious and deserving of attention as their counterparts at the borders with equally as desperate circumstances. All these vulnerable kids are just trying to make it in Nepal, and Tiny Hands is doing everything they can to ensure they more than make it, that they are loved, cared for, protected, educated, healthy and successful in the process—belonging to two parents and a handful of siblings for their entire lives.

Bethany Home kids posing in the play room on our first evening
Bethany Home kids posing in the play room on our first evening

BETHANY HOME

We—Jeff and I, along with a Tiny Hands staff—arrived at Bethany Home one evening during play time, and noticed about a dozen kids ranging in age from three to 12 playing on a colorfully carpeted floor in front of an entire wall of toys and games. The room was painted purple and green, decorated with construction paper handprints, photographs and crafts from each of the kids.

We were pummeled with hugs and kisses and laughter and tickling and displays of ABCs and number counting, and we were eventually serenaded with several songs that included coordinated dance moves and hand motions. They also waited expectantly as Jeff and I struggled to come up with an equally as impressive impromptu song with coordinated dance moves—Father Abraham was brilliant we thought, until they all joined in. Old news, Father Abraham.

Singing and dancing
Singing and dancing

We met the youngest kids, three-year-old Samuel and Sudin, who are not brothers, but were inseparable and off-the-wall silly, inciting monkey noises and matchbox car races and wresting moves from Jeff and the other staff.

Samuel and Sudin
Samuel and Sudin

Samuel and Sudin were typical three-year-old boys in every way possible—rambunctious, playful and full of energy. I looked at the house mom, who was acting as base for several other young kids who would run back and forth from her lap to the toys, and shook my head. How does she do it? And why? She and her husband have two healthy biological kids in the mix somewhere in the room and could surely be making more money for an easier life. But she smiled back and wrapped one of the boys in a bear hug, patiently redirecting the other who was break-dancing on top of another kid’s puzzle.

We wanted to hear their stories—the kids and the parents—but we’d have to come back. Being an attentive mom to 14 kids under 12 doesn’t really allow for efficient side conversation, so we enjoyed the tea served by one of the older kids and jumped into the playtime scene around us.

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Because it’s a law in Nepal that foreigners can’t spend the night in children’s homes, we made arrangements to sneak in the next morning for breakfast just to see what a typical morning is like in the home. We also hoped to visit the kids’ schools and spend some quality time getting to know the house parents.

We arrived early the next morning to sleepy faces and hot breakfast! The kids lined up at the table, prayed together and gobbled up their steamy platefuls of lentils and rice. We had such fun watching the little and big girls do each other’s hair, the older kids fix the uniform neckties of the younger kids, and little feet everywhere pulling socks on and off as they found the right sizes and matches. You would never believe the effort it takes to find and fit 14 little feet into shoes, but they did it, and the entire family gathered for dad’s morning prayer before leaving for school. I was in awe. Throughout the entire getting-ready-for-school process, I never felt tense or overwhelmed. The house parents emulate a feeling of peace and patience throughout the house, and it’s impossible not to just soak it up. When was the last time you spent a few hours with 14 kids under 12 during those hectic morning hours and walked away feeling peaceful?!

Girls getting ready before school
Girls getting ready before school
The girls all lined up and ready
The girls all lined up and ready
A little prayer over the kids before school
A little prayer over the kids before school
14 kids finding their school shoes at the same time :)
14 kids finding their school shoes at the same time :)

We walked with the family hand-in-hand to three different schools, including the two youngest—Samuel and Sudin—who attend a Montessori playgroup. Montessori playgroup. Such opportunities afforded to these two little guys! I wondered if a Montessori playgroup would even have been a possibility in their other lives prior to Bethany Home. Where had they come from? Why were they here?

Questions were piling up as we walked with the parents back to the house, and I patiently sat, sipping my tea and visiting, until the conversation lulled and they asked if we had any questions about the kids or the house. Finally!

“Tell me everything,” I said. “Beginning to end, front to back, yourselves, the kids, the entire story!”

I’d heard from Tiny Hands staff that Bethany Home was a special place, that the parents have a unique story, and that some of their youngest kids had the greatest margin of growth despite desperate beginnings. I wanted it all.  So we sat cross-legged on the floor of the colorful playroom over Nepali tea for several hours, and the Gurungs shared their own story, and the stories of how several kids had become their own.

[Read the rest of this story and how it relates to our own journey of unparerenting here…]

*This and other stories like this are be featured in the December issue of World Next Door Magazine, featuring Tiny Hands Nepal. Download it for freeeeee!