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.

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

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

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.

BRK_9159

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!

The Lottery: Princess puzzles, poverty and a globe-spanning sisterhood

I have three nieces: ages three, four and five. They adore tiny stuffed bunnies and princess puzzles. They sing Call Me Maybe from the backseat of the car in pink booster seats and star-shaped sunglasses. They carry zip-lock bags full of goldfish and kid-sized aluminum canteens of clean water. Their tiny fingers can pinch and zoom on an iPhone to my wonder and awe.

Girls

They are brand new to the planet, relatively speaking, and are totally oblivious to the winnings they hold of the highest lottery never played: they are among the 5% of little girls born into education, healthcare, independence, relative equality and material wealth inside the freedoms of the United States.

Before coming to Cambodia, I watched the documentary Half the Sky. I saw the little faces of three, four and five-year-old girls, the tiny lips and squishy fingers moving in a traditional Cambodian dance rhythm – little painted toes, tiny gold-plated earrings and a miniature strand of fake pearls. These preschool and elementary-aged girls had been rescued from the sex trade and were being cared for by a formerly trafficked woman at a safe house. A giant crack formed right in the middle of my beating heart.  I immediately thought of my nieces. Each one could easily have been born a baby girl in Cambodia.

If you are born a little girl in this world, you arrive with a lottery ticket and low odds. Somewhere in time and space, knit together in the wombs of oppressed women worldwide, these little girls burst forth brand-new and fresh-faced not into pink booster seats and princess puzzles, not into tiny stuffed bunnies or aluminum canteens of fresh water, but into ownership and disease. Into shanties and civil war and violence. Into refugee camps and brothels. Sometimes they are the result of violence perpetrated on their mothers. Sometimes they are born and then disappear. 107 million girls are currently missing in the world right now. Vanished! 107 million.

Even as I sit in Cambodia face to face with these realities, I can’t comprehend them. As a lottery winner, I could easily have lived my entire life squandering the winnings, unaware of what I so narrowly escaped. But I do know, and the aunt in me wants to scoop all the girls from the corners of the earth and kiss their faces, give them nicknames and star-shaped sunglasses. I want to play the game I play with my nieces: “Who loves you? Daddy loves you, yes! And Mommy? Mommy too! And who else loves you? Auntie and Uncle and Grandma and Papa and Mimi? And who else loves you?” On and on we play until she has named every single person who loves her, which takes forever.

I wonder if anyone plays this game with any of these little girls, and I wonder how long the game would last. This girl whose value is based on how many cows a family can get for her dowry, on how much her virginity will generate in dollars, on how light her skin tone is because it determines how many times they can re-sell her to purchase a new TV— it is too much for me. I am overwhelmed, and I know I can’t begin to fix any of it. The problem is too big and too deep.

Hopeless?

The easiest thing to do when I feel hopeless about the state of humanity is bury my head the Target dollar spot, a House Hunters International marathon and a DQ mini blizzard. These are the mind-numbing benefits to my winning lottery ticket.  But what if I could use the winnings to actually make a change in the lives of one of these girls?  What if I didn’t have to bear the burden alone or solve the problem myself? What if others were already working against these injustices, and I could pour into that bucket with lots of others to form an entire network to end—and even prevent—the injustices from occurring in the first place?!

Guess what. No, really. Guess.

I can do each of these things, and there is an organization in Cambodia working against these injustices! The organization is called The Center for Global Impact (CGI), and CGI’s sole purpose is to function as a vessel for each of us with skills, talents and resources to help others worldwide. Right now, as a result of the ideas of skilled and inspired people in central Indiana, CGI is working with girls and women in Cambodia through several vocational and micro enterprise programs to both prevent girls who are at risk from being trafficked, and to reintegrate formerly trafficked girls into the community with self-sustaining sewing and culinary skills. They’ve also started a brand new community-based outreach program in Kien Svay, a small community outside Phnom Penh, working to alleviate the effects of poverty.

As I prepared to leave for Cambodia, balancing my heart between my nieces at home and the kids I’d seen and heard about, I couldn’t wait to see CGI’s work firsthand. Would the issues be right out in front of me, or tucked below the surface? What would the helping look like, and how would I fit in? Would my skills and interests be used? And finally, how in the world would I manage the heat and the spiders?! They eat spiders in Cambodia, you know.

It took about thirty hours of travel to chill me out and a cold shower every 25 minutes to mitigate the heat upon arrival, but I finally settled into my (mostly spider-free) host home and embraced the chance to roll up my pants—literally, it’s rainy season here—and find out what CGI was all about. We had previously talked about my interests (adorable kids) and skills (social work), so I quickly linked up with Kien Svay Kids and a children’s home they partner with called Enzo Tina.

I’d heard that in Cambodia, students are ranked by performance, with the highest raked students promoted, encouraged, and given seats up front, while the lower ranking students are penalized, kept at the back of the classroom, and often-times ignored. Kien Svay Kids is using the primary school as a gateway into the rest of the community by identifying the three lowest performing students in each class, visiting those families, and assessing their needs.

Each morning I met Srey Leak, CGI staff, at the Machem Vorn primary school to speak with the teachers in each class. Usually we were greeted by excited and squirmy students, and the top one or two were selected by the teacher to stand up and perform a song or greeting, which was adorable. But we had come in search of the lowest-ranked students, who  were sitting at the back with embarrassed smiles and very little eye contact.  We walked home with a different struggling student every day at lunchtime to visit with the families and learn what might be keeping each child from being successful.

I realized early on that each situation was infinitely more complicated than it looked from the surface. No two stories of poverty were the same; no two barriers to education would have the same fix; no two kids at risk of exploitation follow the same formula.

We went home with students whose parents were fighting or divorced or used drugs. Our hearts broke with a student whose siblings were killed in a car accident and who was being called “a gentleman’s boy”—the equivalent to being called gay—by other kids in the class. There was a little boy whose parents had each abandoned him, leaving his two grandmothers in a deadlock over whether or not to sell the little boy to ‘His Excellency’, another term for rich man.  There have been orphans and single parent homes and homes with disabilities. We’ve seen families of four living in 10×15 sq foot rooms, and four families of too-many-to-count living in a four-bedroom house. We’ve seen families who simply don’t have the means to pay for afternoon classes or for lunch. We’ve seen kids who live too far away to walk back and forth every day. And we have visited with kids whose families can’t care for them at all and have arranged for their stay at a Children’s home, which most refer to as an orphanage.

The stories not told, however, were those things that happened when the poverty became insurmountable. When the snails didn’t sell, and the fish didn’t bite, and the kids had already dropped out of school, and there was nothing left to eat. In that tight spot, I found the underbelly of poverty. It wasn’t hunger or filth or lack of education—though these things are difficult enough. For some families, there is one last option, one final economic recourse: selling or renting out a child. The underbelly of poverty in this neighborhood was the sex trade.

It’s what happens when there is simply no other solution.

In the middle of this dark realization, however, I met two girls whose stories are living proof that hope exists here. For these two girls and their families, CGI has provided an alternative.

I first met Sreyka (not her real name) when I was visiting a yellow-washed bright and airy local Children’s Home, just a block from the primary school. Kids sang, jumped and played around the compound freely and happily. Sreyka was quiet at first, often looking back and forth to see what others around her were doing, but reciprocated any greeting with a bright and inviting smile—perfect teeth and long bangs that swooped down across her eyes.  We played classic hand-clap games we both knew in different languages and marveled at each other’s chipping nail polish. At 12 years old, her clothing and stature reflect a nine-year-old, but her beauty and culture would soon push her over the cusp of childhood into adolescence.  Although Sreyka’s family lives just two houses down from the children’s home, she stays at the children’s home, sponsored by CGI, for access to two things not available to her at her family home: safety and education.

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Sreyka is the fifth out of six girls, and, based on the secret lives of her mother and older sisters, would have been next in line to be sold for prostitution to meet the basic needs of the family. A few years ago, CGI began building a relationship with the family, and while the oldest daughter remains an active prostitute, CGI was able to draw the next two sisters into the organization’s vocational and rehabilitation program, now known as Imprint Project, to provide skills, value, and an alternative income for the family. One of the sisters graduated the program and now works at a factory; the other sister ran away and returned to the lifestyle of abuse, cash, and pretend value—having been previously abused and having grown up with this as the norm. Sometimes the smokescreen proves more lustrous than the work of recovery.

We met with Sreyka, her mother, and the runaway sister at their family home—a small tin shack with tarp and fabric draped for walls and overhangs, and a short wooden ladder leading to the interior two bedrooms. The kitchen and sitting area were outside, surrounded by piles of dishes, clothes, baby chicks, dog food bins, flip-flops and ceramic water basins, and we sat together with the family on top of the dual purposed bed/table. Although happy to be home with her family and giggling with her sisters, Sreyka mentioned, “At home I could not go to school. I could only cook and clean.”

After years of missing school on and off due to the inability to pay school fees and following closely in the footsteps of her older sisters, Sreyka could have easily become another rescue and rehabilitation story. But CGI, having already invested in the family and community, took notice of Sreyka’s vulnerability and the high risk of her being sold, and they began to provide for her needs through the Kien Svay Kids program.  Now, with her mom’s agreement and admitted desire for Sreyka to do something in her future and to “get more learning”, Sreyka lives at the Children’s home where her meals and clothing and school fees are paid for by CGI, relieving the burden of care from her family while protecting her at the same time. She is working hard to slowly rise from the lowest class ranking as she has difficulty reading and writing, but gets daily lessons and homework help.

I asked Sreyka what she hopes to be when she grows up, and she shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. She lives day-by-day, our translator explained, and all she can see are the lives of her family members. “I think I want to do the work of my sister,” Sreyka said, “but I don’t know what my sister does.”

And there, again, came the urge for face kisses and the Who Loves You? game. Left in her family environment, she could easily end up standing in her runaway sister’s exact footsteps. She has the potential right now to be so much more than her sisters, but she has no idea! Fortunately, CGI knows.  And they’ll hold onto that vision for her until she’s able to see a future for herself.

While we interviewed Sreyka, another sweet face kept popping around the corner. It was Sokha, another CGI sponsored girl living at the Children’s Home with the same needs as Sreyka – safety and education – but with an entirely different story.

Sokha, thrilled with the opportunity to go home and see her family, grabbed Sreyka’s hand (it was clear the two were becoming close friends) and we all hopped into a tuk-tuk for the 40 minute ride through the Cambodian countryside, through rice fields and farms, to Sokha’s family home.

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There, we saw the farm her family maintains on the land they rent for $100 per year and the factory where her four siblings work. As her dad cut corn from the stalks for us to eat, her mom began frying some eggs and rice to serve us for lunch. We sat on the floor of the family home and learned about sweet Sokha.

She first came to CGI about ten months ago when her mom approached the Children’s Home in desperation. Sokha’s three cousins, whose mom had died and dad had left, were living there, and Sokha’s mom knew there might be a chance for the same graces to be showered upon her youngest daughter, who was forced to quit school and work on the family farm. The youngest of five kids, the family had simply run out of money for Sokha’s school fees.  Even more concerning was Sokha’s vulnerability. At 14, she was becoming older and more beautiful, and with fair skin in a rural community, her parents began to fear letting her ride her bike to or from school in the country as she would be an easy target for kidnapping, rape, and trafficking.

“It’s dangerous to be born a beautiful girl in Cambodia,” our translator told us, Sokha’s mother nodding in agreement.

Because of the money and fear, Sokha had missed so much school she had to repeat a grade when she first arrived, but is now the top in her 6th grade class. “I want to complete my studies, so I can work in a bank!” Sokha told us, smiling.  “When I was 11 or 12, I saw the girl at the bank, and I noticed her beautiful uniform and hair. I knew she made lots of money, and I knew I wanted to be like her someday.”

Sokha’s mom and dad looked at her proudly and stroked her hair.

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When Sokha’s mom approached the Children’s Home, last fall, they contacted CGI as they had before for other partnerships. The two organizations came to an agreement that the Children’s Home would house Sokha if CGI paid for all the expenses, including food, clothing and school fees.

“It’s safe and easy for her there. She can go to school, and she has enough food,” Sokha’s mom said. “We used to be a poor family, but now we are a normal family.”

Her parents gave us hugs and sent us back to the tuk-tuk with a bag of corn from the farm, and in front of us walked Sokha and Sreyka, hand in hand. I was certain Sokha could rattle off an endless list of those who loved her, and now Sreyka could list Sokha.

As I watched them giggle and run toward the tuk-tuk, I was reminded of my last niece, Rachel, who’s 13. She has a compassionate heart, is artistic and fun, loves glitter shoes and creative baking. I rode back to the Children’s Home with 12-year-old Sreyka and 15-year-old Sokha and thought if Rachel knew about the lives of her peers on the other side of the world, she would want to help. But how? I could hear her asking.

How can kids help kids?

That’s where the CGI Kids movement comes in. CGI Kids in the US exists to encourage and equip kids to use their God-given passions and abilities to make a positive impact in the lives of children around the world. Kids have all the creativity and none of the barriers of “grown up” practicality!

Take Mackenzie and Zachary. When they saw a picture of a dirty water bottle, they asked their dad, “Who would drink that?”  A conversation followed about kids all over the world drinking dirty water, and Mackenzie and Zachary were inspired to do extra chores and set money aside to help provide children with clean water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. They talked with CGI President Chris Alexander as he was getting ready to leave for Cambodia, and Chris explained that he was going to visit little boys and girls that live on an island with no access to clean water. Two families who live on an island halfway around the world now have a clean water filtration system because two kids from central Indiana wanted to make a difference.

While here in Cambodia, I learned about another group of kids in Fountaintown, IN. They heard a presentation about CGI’s work with kids in Cambodia and went nuts! The kids emptied their wallets and piggy banks raising enough money to fund new school uniforms and school supplies for 200 kids, which were being delivered on the days I was at the primary school.

A couple of other kids set up a lemonade stand in their neighborhood, earned $25, their mom matched it, and they sent $50 in cash on the next trip to Cambodia to meet a need of a kid who was struggling.

One last group of kids in Indiana gathered together at a park with buckets donated from Menards and tomato plants. CGI Kids hosted a gardening workshop for the kids, everyone took their tomato plants home to raise throughout the summer, and as the tomatoes become ripe, they’ll be sold and the money will be collected to help CGI’s culinary training restaurant, The Green Mango.

As I heard story after story about kids here and kids at home, it hit me: CGI Kids is the intersection of pink aluminum canteens and dirty water bottles; of stuffed bunnies and child labor; of Call Me Maybe from a booster seat and the lonely singing of a kid in Kien Svay who works a farm because she has no money for school. CGI Kids is the intersection of Rachel and Sreyka, a meeting point for little ones who won the resource lottery and want to use their grace-given winnings to help those who simply missed the odds.

Some adults and kids and entire families can drop their lives for a few weeks or a few months and fly over to provide the hands-on work of whatever inspires them and with whatever skills they have for the kids of Kien Svay. Others don’t have the flexibility or means to do the direct work, but they can educate the people around them about the invisible lottery that exists, about the vulnerability of kids on the other side of the world, and about the value they can add to a little life by pouring time, energy, skills and resources in to CGI, already forging the way.

I’m not sure how I managed to get a winning ticket, but I am a part of this sisterhood of oppressed women worldwide, and I have to do something to make life better for all of us.

I can’t scoop up all these girls and kiss their faces, I can’t rattle off an endless list of people who love them, but I know that CGI is doing this, providing each one with value and love, and I can pour into CGI my time, skills and money. I can sponsor one of the girls. I can give up a summer to run a kids camp. I can purchase my bags or clothes from byTavi. I can simply tell others about what I’ve seen and learned.  One thing is certain: I can’t just sit on the winnings.

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From the July 2013 Issue of World Next Door Magazine
More articles like this? Want to DO something about this? Visit http://www.worldnextdoor.org/magazine or click here to read the July Cambodia issue online.

2013: World Next Door

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So. I’m not really sure how to lay this out, because normal 30-somethings with a mortgage and stable employment don’t up and join a non-profit for a year to advocate for and work alongside social justice organizations around the world.  But you’ll never believe what Jeff and I are about to do…

Yes, okay. You might have just guessed it. 

In March 2013, Jeff and I will be putting our lives on Pause to join an organization called World Next Door. It is a Christian-based non-profit that seeks to inspire and mobilize people here to work alongside and support international mission organizations fighting injustice all over the world—something Jeff and I feel passionate about.

We will be traveling to four different countries, beginning with Rwanda in March and Cambodia in June. We’ll be working hand-in-hand within different social justice missions and capturing their work through writing and photojournalism. In Rwanda, we’ll be working with ALARM (African Leadership and Reconciliation Movement) on leadership development, reconciling relationships, and transforming communities through economic empowerment, education, health promotion, and orphan care—among other programs.  In Cambodia we’ll be working with the Center for Global Impact to combat sex trafficking through a dress-making program called The Daughter’s Project, a culinary training center, and a micro-enterprise initiative called byTavi. Our goal through the writing and photojournalism piece is to bring people to places like Rwanda and Cambodia so that they (you?) can get an inside look at what is happening and how to fight injustices that exist all over.  

If you know us a little, then you know that Jeff and I have passions for social justice, photography, and writing, and we are both inspired by our faith. So, this is a perfect fit!  Also, as you might already know via FB and blogs, we’ve been through two years of infertility, and this is the first thing that has given us excitement and purpose beyond having a family. We still hope and pray that God will give us a family someday, but right now we believe we are still living a life of adventure and purpose, just in a different way.

We would like to partner with others who feel inspired to join this mission- in prayer and/or program costs- to offer a bridge from your home to the other side of the world. We would like to put together a prayer support team, and a fundraising team. We are required to raise half the cost of our year-long mission for World Next Door and are looking for 35 people, families, or groups to contribute $100/mo for a year (2013). This may be the most intimidating part in the whole endeavor. Taking leaves from our jobs, deferring our school loans, and leaving our families is nothing compared to raising a year’s worth of money in three months!

Although we know this is mot the majority, there are individuals and families who set aside a designated amount of monthly or yearly funds to contribute to missions or charity organizations. Maybe that’s you, and you feel inspired to support us individually. Or maybe you know of friends or family members who support different missions you could pass this info along to.

Another option is to pool money in groups (friends, co-workers, life group, small group, Sunday school class, etc.) to donate $100/mo? There are creative ways this could be done, but, given the challenging economic times, maybe you are just not in position to support us financially. We definitely understand and your thoughts and prayers would be much appreciated.

Thank you so much for reading and considering, and if you have more questions, let’s talk! My cell phone is (260-249-9068) and my email address: brkwilson@gmail.com

Here are several links to the organizations we’ll be embedded with: 

World Next Door: http://www.worldnextdoor.org/about/
ALARM:
http://alarm-inc.org/
Center for Global Impact:
http://www.centerforglobalimpact.org/projects.html

TO DONATE (tax deductible):

If you want to contribute financially, just let me know, and I’ll email you a pledge card. You can fill out the pledge card, attach a check, and mail it to World Next Door.

Checks are made out to “World Next Door, Inc.” and designate “Fellowship 4” in the memo line. Mail it to:
World Next Door

5501 N College Ave
                                          
Indianapolis, IN  46220

To Give Monthly (Automatic Bank Payments)

Did you know that most banks allow you to set up automatic monthly payments for free? 

By entering World Next Door as a recipient with your online banking service, your gift can be automatically sent straight to WND mailbox (5501 N College Ave, Indianapolis, IN  46220) without you having to ever lift a finger.  How cool is that?

Check out your online banking website for more information (if your online banking service requests an account number, please use the phrase FELLOWSHIP 4).  *You can also donate Monthly on PayPal by visiting www.worldnextdoor.org/give

Love & Hugs, 
Jeff & Brooke

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Elvis or Racism?

Originally I planned to attend a community event that was not centered on racism. I wanted to do the New Orleans Film Festival or German Fest or anything light and fun. But then professor Chaisson offered extra credit points to attend the 10th annual Diversity Convocation where Tim Wise was speaking, and I reluctantly agreed, rolling my eyes. The thing is, she said there would be food. It gets me every time.

Apparently, this is how I felt about racism: reluctant and eye-rolly. It’s not that I didn’t think it existed or wasn’t a current issue; it’s not that I didn’t think diversity was important or necessary. I just didn’t understand what it had to do with me. After all, it wasn’t my idea. I’m in social work! I’m here to fight injustice and help people—other people, like, international kids or people affected by trauma and things. Racism just wasn’t really my platform.

(Stay with me, here.)

Then I heard Mr. Wise speak.

As it always does for me about a thousand years after every one else, a light bulb came on during that hour-and-a-half, and I realized I had never really gotten it. While I listened when people told me about white priviledge and institutional racism, and I agreed that somewhere someone was probably being treated unjustly, I could not wrap my mind around the concept that I was where I was because the system was set up for me to achieve. I’ll admit I thought that sounded a little bit conspiracy theory-ish. I’ll also admit that subconsciously for that theory to be true, I had to accept that my successes were not necessarily achieved in my own right, but through a series of opened doors I was able to walk through that, in some cases, my peers of color were not.

Mr. Wise explained it in this way, which helped in my understanding: Mr. Wise is an educator who travels around and speaks to groups about racism. He got this job because immediately after college, two guys offered it to him. He was 22, and the two guys who offered him the job were people he knew from Tulane: a professor and a classmate. He was able to go to Tulane (even though his family was at poverty level) because his mother was able to go to the bank and secure a $10,000 loan. His mother would not have been able to get the loan had his grandma not been able to co-sign the loan on her home’s collateral. His grandma’s home was appraised at a higher value—enough to cover the loan’s cost—because it had a higher property value and sat in a neighborhood that had been established as white in the 50s and 60s and retains higher property values even to this day.

So, to recap, Mr. Wise got the job from two guys he knew (1st degree) from Tulane (2nd degree), which he was able to attend thanks to his mother’s loan (3rd degree), which was awarded to her through his grandmother’s cosigning (4th degree) based on a higher-valued house in a traditionally established white neighborhood from the 60’s (5th degree). That’s 5 degrees and 50 years removed from the original racial act—and this man is still benefiting.

This is just one example of hundreds Mr. Wise listed, but when the light came on, I felt immediately burdened by my newfound understanding and heartbroken over my idiotic lack of others-awareness (as opposed to self-awareness, which I then realized I might have in excess) in how I relate to everyone else.

For this reason, for the impact it had on my racial worldview and the fact that even driving around this morning on the I-10 felt less sunny knowing that the I-10 high rise project had plowed through oak-lined park areas in the Treme neighborhood where black folks used to gather and live in the 60’s— to transport white people in and out of the city from suburbs—I decided to reflect on this community event instead.

Taken from the convocation program, Mr. Tim Wise is one of the nation’s leading anti-racism educators working toward dismantling racism. He has spoken in 48 states, on over 500 college campuses, and was chosen as the 2008 Oliver L. Brown Distinguished Scholar for Diversity Issues at Washburn University, originally named for the lead plaintiff in the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Obviously, the man has credentials.

As he spoke, I raced to jot down notes but at some point just put the pen down and listened, which worked out much better. I’ll first share a few points that were of interest, and then I’ll explain the importance of the event from a social work perspective.

One of the points Mr. Wise gave that made a lasting impression on my understanding of institutional racism was that prior to 1964, every white person was elevated BY LAW. This fact is so alarming it makes me wonder how there could not be institutional racism today if the supremacy of Whites was actually mandated 50 years ago. How would you ever get rid of such a mindset, especially considering those lawmakers and abiding citizens, plus children born to those same lawmakers and abiding citizens are still part of the current generation and population.

Another point I took as both interesting and funny was when Mr. Wise said a poll had been taken asking people if they thought racism was still a problem. Only eleven percent of those who took the poll reported that yes, racism was still a problem. Randomly, a different poll was taken asking people if they thought Elvis was still alive. Twelve percent reported that yes, Elvis was still alive. Mr. Wise (in humor) compared the two and noted how funny it was that more people believe Elvis is still alive than believe that racism exists in the United States.

Mr. Wise continued to make the point that in 1962, a time most people would now identify as an outright racially discriminatory decade, a similar poll was taken which asked if people believed both Blacks and Whites had equal rights, and if black school children had the same opportunities as white school children. In 1962, seventy percent of people said yes, Blacks and Whites had full equal opportunities, and 87% said yes, black school children had the same opportunities as white school children.

Mr. Wise’s point was that white people didn’t see it in 1962, a time that was clearly discriminatory, and most of us don’t see it now for this reason: white people are asking white people if racism exists. He pointed out that it’s pointless to ask the group NOT being oppressed if oppression exists because they are not the one experiencing it. You wouldn’t ask a man if sexism is operating. You wouldn’t ask the able-bodied if they were able to get into the building tonight. Of course they were. In order to find out the extent of oppression and marginalization, we need to ask the oppressed and marginalized. And then, when they tell us it’s happening, we need to believe them.

How does this relate to competent social work practice? Obviously this could relate in every possible area given that our primary mission, according to the NASW, is to enhance human well-being and help meet the needs of all people, with particular attention to people who are vulnerable, oppressed and living in poverty; but for right now I’ll focus on one specific relation to this event and social work: education. To quote my friend Kayla: If we don’t know, we absolutely cannot understand. If we don’t understand, then we’ll have no motivation to change anything.

We carry the responsibility and the duty to educate ourselves on every social issue—even when we don’t think it relates, because it always does. It’s the social part of social work. We do not exist to help and treat ourselves.

I’ll admit that after 7 hours of school and 3 hours of work, it was only natural to feel reluctant about sitting though another lecture in spite of the food and extra credit benefit. But it was my duty as a social worker to educate myself on the ways in which institutional racism is impacting all of us. If I hadn’t, I’d be right back to where I was on Wednesday at 6:29 pm: yeah, but what does this have to do with me?