I Can’t Save Anyone From Injustice


She had bruises on her neck that Sunday afternoon. My breath caught hard and I looked down to blink back tears. I wanted to just scoop her up and take her away to some place where this pain could never touch her again. But she is an adult and there are limits to what even law officers can prevent when someone returns to an abusive situation.

I quietly pick up her little boy, the one who she will save and protect with everything she has, even if it means calling me and letting me keep him for hours and days. “You can call the police or just come home with me,” I remind her, “you don’t have to stay here.”

She looks away and I know there is more holding her here than him.

I know that her love for her son is true and right.

I don’t know much else.

“I’ll keep your son safe,” I tell her.

She nods and rushes back inside.

My husband walks with me to the car. He helps me buckle in the little boy who is clinging to his stuffed animal and a bag of microwave popcorn. I ache. I can’t save anyone. Not really. Not with love, not with time, not with money or energy. I touch the blond curls that fall against the car seat.

All over the world men and women are charging into desperate situations, working for justice and setting the captives free.

When I first learned of the slavery and abuse in our world today, the way that men and women and children were forced to mark their souls with horror, I burned to help them. I burned to do something, anything.

And God spoke so clearly, marking my own soul with truth. It starts right here.

It starts with me being willing to walk up to the neighbor’s house and offer refuge and safety to the broken. It starts with me being willing to stand in a driveway in the middle of my town and have obscenities screamed at me because the father of the child I am helping is dead-drunk and I cannot leave until someone else arrives to help.

It starts with me learning to taste the dirt of the marred and the imprisoned who live right here, to stop protecting my neat-little-life from the messiness of a broken world.

I can’t save anyone. I can’t stop her from walking back into the house where she is being torn apart and misused. But I can open my doors to her and pray God’s grace into her and maybe, someday, she’ll walk through them.

There is no hope unless I try.

Photo Credit: Edwin Emerlich , Creative Commons

I Needed it to Hurt


In September my friend Steve embarked on a run he called “Rim to Rim,” as part of a campaign to help free 50 women from sex trafficking. He and four other guys ran the length of the Grand Canyon from the North Rim to the South Rim in about ten hours. It’s a 23 mile run and covers over 11,000 feet of elevation change.

Steve started blogging about his plans and asked us to join in it with him by donating money to Eyes that See.

When I first read about Steve’s caper on his blog, I was pumped. I’ve been on a personal journey of learning to see people around me the way Jesus does. Day by day, I’m setting aside my boxes, my preconceived ideas about who people are and how they should act and how they will meet my expectations. Instead, I’m learning to see beauty, a longing for love, brokenness, needs waiting to be met, and hunger for more.

I donated money to Rim to Rim and felt good about being part of the caper.

I shared the link on Facebook and talked it up to my friends. I was proud to go to a church where the pastor would do this cool thing for these women in Africa.

My donation was helping a woman start a new life.

As the date of Steve’s run drew near, though, I started to feel like my donation wasn’t enough. I couldn’t stop thinking about the suffering these women endured and the challenges they faced every day. Truthfully, the money I donated didn’t hurt. I didn’t have to give up a single gourmet coffee or buy one less bottle of wine. I didn’t even notice the debit in my bank account.

I wanted it to hurt. I needed to hurt with these women.

In one post shortly before the big run, Steve mentioned a friend of his who would be running 50 miles in solidarity the day Steve ran the Grand Canyon. The idea of running with Drew crossed my mind. It was easy to dismiss, though, because while I’m a runner, I’m not conditioned to run that far, especially at his pace.

I couldn’t let the idea go, though, so I got in contact with Drew. We made plans for me to meet up with him that Sunday and run one of the 5-mile laps with him. Saturday night, into Sunday morning, I just kept thinking about what a stupid idea it was. I’m so much slower than he is. I’d never met the guy. I wanted to relax at home with my family before a crazy week of work and school. I could think of a hundred reasons not to meet up with Drew.

That’s how I knew I had to run.

How many times do those women in Ethiopia wonder if they will ever live a life different than the one they’ve been living? How many times do they think life can’t get any better? How often do they feel alone and unseen?

I ended up running the final five miles with Drew on Sunday. There were six of us running, and I met some pretty cool people. It was an honor to run with him. Despite coming from different places, geographically and in life, we all had a sense of belonging. We were united around a common cause, and we were all runners.

Drew carried the name of a woman from Eyes that See with him on each five mile lap, and he prayed for her during the run. He named her struggles aloud as he climbed each hill.

And we ran together. Something changed in me on that run.

The run wasn’t just for me or about me. Every step was a step for a woman I will never meet. I couldn’t quit because nothing I was facing on that run could compare to the hardship of their every day lives. Even the hardest hill I faced was nothing but a memory 5 minutes later.

I kept thinking about the craziness of it all. There are women around the world who cannot fathom having the money to feed and clothe their families, let alone extra for entertainment. They run because they have to, possibly for their very lives.

How often do I pay $25 to run 3 or 6 miles and get a t-shirt I will wear once?

My priorities are so different from theirs. Things that are luxuries to them, I take for granted every single day.

Participating in that run felt like stepping into a community of people, many of whom I will never meet, that is united around a common cause: seeing the unseen. Now, every time I run I think of those women in Ethiopia, and I say a prayer for them. Every hill, every hard run, I’m reminded of the challenges they face every day and of their commitment to make a change for the better in their own lives.  It’s motivation for me to keep moving up each hill, pushing past the parts of me that want to walk and catch my breath.

I’m walking through a tough season of life, and there are plenty of days I want to take the shortcut and get some temporary emotional reprieve.

God keeps telling me to stick it out, to keep loving and forgiving and holding on to hope no matter how hard it is.

Every step on every run is a step in that journey too. I’m pushing myself past physical and emotional limits I didn’t think I could surpass, and it’s all by God’s grace. I run for me, to stay fit physically and emotionally. I also run for my family, for my marriage, for my running companions and for women in Ethiopia I will never meet.

With every step I take back a little of what has been taken from me.

And now I carry those women in my heart.

The Homeless Woman in the Back of My Van


I can’t walk into a fast food restaurant bathroom anymore without seeing her legs, the way they stuck skinny beneath the door that day in old man pants, with white socks and black slippers.

A little girl and her mother were in front of me and we all froze and I said “Heavens.”

I went to get the manager. “There’s an old man passed out in the woman’s washroom,” I said, and when we returned, Jane was emerging from the stall. A tall, African American woman with a beautiful face, short cropped hair and the reddest eyes I’ve ever seen.

She wore a long man’s winter jacket with a hood over her head, and she’d been sleeping there, in the stall.

I followed her out of the bathroom and she turned and saw me. “Can I buy you some food?” I said.  She walked up to the Wendy’s counter, ordered a coffee and some baked beans then turned and found a table, lay her head on the surface.

“Do you have a home?” I asked, bringing the tray of food to her and she ate with enormous bites, not stopping to swallow.

“No,” she said.

“Do you have any friends in the city?”

“No. I’m from Vancouver.”

“My name is Emily.” Henna tattoos laced her arms, a hospital band on her wrist.

She looked at me then, smiled a little. “I’m Jane,” she said.

I asked her about the hospital band; she said she’d checked herself in because she wasn’t feeling well, but they’d discharged her. She didn’t know where I could drop her off. I told her I needed to visit someone in the hospital, but she was welcome to lie down in the back of my van and sleep for a while. I figured it beat the streets. She said Sure.

I gave her my coat to lie on, and she curled up like a child. Then I closed the van door and begged God for help.

I’ve never seen someone so hurting for sleep and food and love. I’ve never met someone so deprived of physical necessities. And when you do meet someone like that, true religion means giving them the coat off your back because how can we say we believe in love if we ignore the loveless?

She was snoring when I returned to the van and I called Trent, said I had a homeless woman in the back of my van and he went online and found addresses and phone numbers for places in the city that could take her in.

I dropped her off at the Hope Mission.

It was Thanksgiving weekend and she would get a free turkey dinner and a bed. I left her with a box of granola bars and my business card, and a hug, saying, “I’m here for you Jane.”

And I cried on the way home, for how she’d been sitting outside the mission with a line of old men waiting for the doors to open.
That night I told my four-year-old son about her, about this lady who had no house, and he turned to me, shock across his young face. “We have to help them!” he said.

Yes. We have to help them. Everyone deserves a home and a bed and food.

And God gave me a glimpse of her room in heaven: with a warm bed, a feather-tick duvet, a bathtub with jet streams and the softest towels. The windows were large and bright with sunshine.

“I want to open a place one day,” I told my husband. “It will have ten of the most comfortable beds, and beautiful bathrooms, and the finest foods; there will be massages and new clothes and it will be a place for the homeless to go, before transitional housing. They will come for three days to be pampered, before moving on to the necessary programs .”

Trent shook his head. “You could help so many more if you didn’t make it so extravagant.”

I leaned forward. “But that’s the whole point,” I said. “Remember the story of Mary breaking expensive perfume to anoint Jesus? The disciples said it was such a waste. But it was a display of extravagant, radical love. Every person deserves to be pampered once in their life. To be treated like a queen or king. To witness overflowing, incredible love, with no limits.”

Trent nodded. “I see.”

“I would call it Jane’s Place,” I said.

I lie awake at night wondering where Jane is sleeping now. I’ll never stop praying for her, the woman in the old man’s jacket and the black slippers who has no home.

[photo: Creative Commons, Keoni Cabral]

Learning to Do Good, Despite The Risk


Not long ago, I walked into a restaurant and saw an older woman sitting alone.

I wondered why she came to the restaurant by herself. If she was tired of sitting at home alone every day, if she just wanted someone else to cook for her, or if maybe she was escaping a cranky old husband. You never can tell.

Common sense and conscience told me that, whatever her circumstances, many of her friends and family had already passed away, leaving her with less belonging than she may have felt at other stages in life.

But still I thought reaching out in conversation might be a bit awkward. That it might make her feel uncomfortable or obligated.

Those internal promptings are so wrapped up in ordinary moments.

When I saw her fidgeting with her smart phone in frustration, trying to figure out how to check her voicemail, though, I took the opportunity to offer a little help.

I don’t say that to draw your affirmation. It’s nothing heroic to give a quick tutorial to an elderly woman. I say it just to emphasize that this is how moments of conscience arrive, in these tiny ordinary moments that could just as easily be blinked away.

By the time my new companion and I were finished eating, we had covered everything from recipes to television shows.

She was concerned about her three year old great grandson being raised with no father, she was shocked but delighted about discovering she had a niece no one knew about from years ago, and she was insistent I would probably recognize her curly-haired sixty-something year old son from a picture in her wallet because he was a “well known” karaoke singer.

She also asked me to watch her purse while she ran outside to her car twice. Before she left, she told me that I was a very nice young girl and that it was nice to meet a “new friend.”

These are the things we want to say that seem to stir inside of us.

Sometimes that is how it goes, isn’t it? You’re speaking to some acquaintance or to someone you’ve come up on several times, with whom you’ve come to engage in small talk. And, in the course of conversation or life events, you come into information that is a little bit beyond the scope of your normal chitchat about the weather or local sports.

For this woman, it was a discovery that her brother had a secret daughter with another woman, and how she was just cherishing the chance to get to know the girl and fill her in on the family history she’d been missing so long.

Or maybe it’s something darker.

You find out a man was just divorced, or went bankrupt, or that a woman just got a DUI or was a victim of domestic abuse.
If you’re anything like me, your emotions piece together an internal auto-response.

This should never have happened to you.

I’m sorry you experienced this.

This isn’t what God intended.

You want to validate, give the gift of recognition, to offer connection, a bit of peace, some blessing. But perhaps this is too intimate a thing to say you tell yourself. Perhaps it’s not my place. This is a conversation for someone else who knows him or her better than I do.

“So I heard we may get rain again today,” your mouth says.

Or, you’re talking to someone who is much more experienced than you.

Someone you look up to, whose accomplishments outweigh your own. There you are, talking to them, being moved by who they are and what they’re becoming.

And you want to say, “I’m proud of you. The work you have done? It’s been worth it. I know it hasn’t been easy. That you’ve paid the cost. But I’m thankful you hung in there.” But who are you to say that? Some cut-rate kid? Someone who doesn’t know the first thing about their field? Who can’t hold a candle to their expertise? Who feels a little awkward or reverent in their presence?

So you slink away with a, “It was great to meet you. I’ve read your book.”

Let someone else do that, you think to yourself.

My grandmother, a well-meaning and protective motherly type, once suggested it would be unwise for my husband and me to allow a teenager, who’d been convicted of a felony, to move into our house for a couple years. She was generous. Don’t fault her there.

But, like any grandma, she sensed possible danger for those she loved.

It’s not that she didn’t empathize with his need or want him to be helped. She just was hoping the help wouldn’t come from us. Her exact words? Let someone else do that. But I couldn’t bring myself to take her well-meaning suggestion. The words in John 15:1 kept echoing in my head. Laying down life for a friend.

Despite her warnings, my husband and I opted to invite this teenager to live with us.

Rather than ask him, the vulnerable in need of support, to understand why we couldn’t open our lives to him, we asked her, in her comfort and sufficiency, to understand why we could.

It was one of the best choices I’ve ever made.

So often, when I choose to do good, despite the risk, ordinary moments lead to important internal stirrings. And following those promptings has brought so many meaningful lessons and gifts to my life.

Sometimes we imagine an extraordinary life lies beyond our normal one, in A-list Hollywood or some exotic location where we paint in an Italian vineyard. But I firmly believe our extraordinary lives are waiting for us, neatly packaged in ordinary moments we just need to take the time to unwrap.

As long as we’re willing to take the risk.

Photo Credit: Andrew Malone , Creative Commons

Photographing Hope in the Developing World



The center was nothing more than a couple of rickety wood shacks strung together.

It was nestled in an overcrowded slum in Nairobi, Kenya, neighboring muddy paths and shambles of homes and a dirty stream. I looked wide-eyed at the center, asking myself whether this really could be where young girls received proper care in their recovery from sexual violence.

I didn’t want to pull out my camera when I saw the center.

I feared being yet another poverty tourist, showing off pictures of these girls and making them feel insignificant, even exploited.

But taking photographs is my job. Right now I’m on a 12-month journey around the world with a creative media non-profit I co-founded called Join the Lights.

Each month we visit a new country and create a short documentary film for a different organization, from those helping victims of sex trafficking in Cambodia to the Maasai tribe in Tanzania.

On the last day with the organization, Wangu Kanja, a local leader, showed me one of the care centers she partners with that provides victims of or those at risk of sexual violence the care and support they need.

Over a dozen girls buzzed around the center, fixing their hair and doing laundry and staying busy.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the center’s humble nature. How could this be doing any good? Are these girls really in a better situation than they were before?  After a few minutes of exploring, I pulled the camera out to take a few photographs of the girls.

In the developing world, pulling out a camera can be a dangerous and difficult thing to do.

It’s not dangerous because it will be stolen, but rather because a horde of children may mob the photographer and scream mzungu! with each click of the camera.

And it’s difficult because photographing strangers, especially those in less fortune circumstances, can feel invasive of someone’s home, someone’s humanity. As a photographer working in marginalized communities, I always stay acutely aware of the atmospheres where I take photos.

I don’t want to take advantage of someone when photographing them; I don’t want to publish their poverty.

But there was something subtly different about the girls at the center in the slums of Nairobi.

As soon as I pulled out my camera, their eyes lit up as they began making silly faces and poses.

Underneath their wide grins and silly poses was confidence. They seemed happy to be who they were, proud to be silly and pose in front of a mzungu with a camera.  They had a sisterhood that united them and made them strong.

Sometimes it’s hard as a photographer and traveler to step out of my Western mentality, and maybe I never will be able to.

There is plenty to be said for a clean, well–built, and well-staffed facility.

Yet that doesn’t mean that my Western, bigger is better  mentality is actually better. Sometimes God wants to shatter our image of what we think is right and trust he can work through the small things—or even that he doesn’t need any of those things at all.

I judged the center’s outward appearance just as we judge a book by its cover.

The houses were not up to any sort of standards.  There probably wasn’t a good staff to child ratio.  This probably wasn’t the best location and it definitely didn’t have the best bathrooms.  But these girls were indeed different and changed.

They exuded confidence. They held onto hope.

With every click of the camera, I’m learning that outward appearances often mask the beauty inside. I’m beginning to understand what I judge as proper and right may not be so. And I’m gaining the courage to hold onto hope, too.

[Photo: Brendon Burton, Creative Commons]