Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Advent Conspiracy - Ruinin' My Wants

Tis the season to be jolly, right? The earth lays slumbering under a blanket of white, cars drive frantically to their next purchase, children run wild with the joy of no-school and, soon, presents to come fueling them. It seems to go like this every year. Nothing out of the ordinary.

But maybe that's the problem. Our consumption has become so ordinary. For myself, I have long wanted to be more socially active, especially pertaining to areas of injustice. Throughout the past several years, a number of justice non-profits have seen my financial support, some of which I also directly did work for and traveled with. I suppose that's why my Christmas list pained me so.

At the top of the list was an X-Box 360. I don't care if it's new or not, but it's what I wanted. I was asked to make a list of the things I wanted, and so I wrote that down and a few DVD titles. I even wrote that I wanted donations given to a few charities in my name. Doesn't seem wrong or anything. Then why do I feel this awkwardness?

A video made by Advent Conspiracy has recently come to my attention, and I think that is what has done it. I knew it was already to late to take back the list I had made. All the gifts are bought and wrapped at this point. A part of me wished that I had be awakened to my selfishness earlier, before I made the list, so I could make such things a priority.

I am not saying gifts are bad. I think they are fine. I like getting and giving gifts, but I do wish I had made more of an effort to make the needs of those who are being oppressed; or in the case of the video, those who won't have access to clean drinking water, more of a priority. Maybe I am over-reacting and am simply to hard on myself. Actually, that's most likely the case, but it bothers me that people don't have access to such a basic thing as water. I'm worried about an X-Box? Just doesn't seem right to me.

I wanted to vent. And so I have. Thanks.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Love Overcomes

Studying injustice has been one of the great awakenings of my soul. The desire to help free the oppressed and rescue the abused; to bring reconciliation and love to those who have suffered - it's a desire that isn't momentary, but one that I feel will last. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm in no way saying that I'm happy that injustice exists so it can be one of my adventures or anything, but I am happy to learn that God deeply cares about the oppressed. Not just that, but even positions himself as the God of the oppressed. To know that I follow a God who is deeply moved and bothered by injustice, brings me hope that their freedom will come. It's in following this God that I find that desire. I don't know if it would be as strong as it is without my faith. They seem to work together, at least, for me.

I've been really surprised at the kind of resistance I've encountered lately though. Resistance that has told me that I'm wasting my time; the causes I stand for will never find their resolution. Not only that, but to hear the criticisms from some who blame me for abandoning the poor in America, saying that I should be focusing here and fix the problems here before I focus anywhere else. I haven't been sure how to respond to this kind of criticism. I am relieved that it's merely assumption. If they knew me, they'd know that while I've fed the homeless in Serbia, I've fed and clothed the homeless in Pittsburgh. While I've helped rebuild the broken parts of a home in Bosnia, I helped tear down walls and put new ones up in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. I've witnessed injustices that would make a lot of people fall apart and ask, "why?" I know that these things are simple assumptions and can move past them quite easily. Hearing about how wrong my other stances are, and how they won't work out in the end though...those have been a bit harder.

Beautiful Serbian lady

Sometimes you are told something so often, that you start to wonder if they (the doubters) are right. Am I wasting my time on this cause? It's been years and years and yet resolution has still not come to this area or that, so why do I push on? Clearly nothing is going to happen. Clearly I am naive. Or am I? Am I naive to think that love can overcome? Am I ignorant to think that a conflict of 23 years can end, bringing peace to a region who's only known war since I've been born? Am I simply wasting my time?

I recently read an email by Dave Eggars (Author of "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius") who had a take on his own critics when his first book came out and became successful (thank you, Kenny for sending me that email). What it boiled down to was something I needed to read, something I needed to hear when this was happening to me. It was so simple too. Who cares what the critics say? Who cares what anyone says? I do something I enjoy. I find life in what I do. And even more so, what I fight for has meaning. If even one person can find freedom from the chains of injustice, is that one person not enough? Should I care about one person when millions suffer in similar, if not, worse conditions? Absolutely. To bring peace to even one person who has suffered, that is to do something amazing.

There is a tug on my heart to free those chained down. I've traveled half the world for the past 2 years and seen a lot of things. I've seen pain and destruction, terror and hatred, oppression and suffering. But in those things, I've seen something miraculous. I've seen love conquer fear, hope conquer oppression, joy conquer pain. I've seen the eyes of the homeless lady in Budapest, Hungary light up with hope and amazement, simply because someone noticed her and gave her flowers and a smile. I've seen life come through the destruction that still lingers after years of war. I've seen barriers broken through as beggars stopped begging and simply enjoyed time spent with one another, happy to be noticed not as a money drop, but as a person; as flesh and blood.

The critics can say what they will, it makes no difference to me. I hope they get to see the life that I've seen come through the pain we feel. I will continue to work towards reconciliation and peace. Desmond Tutu has said that, "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." I don't think I can stop working towards justice. I know the moment I give in, the moment I stop even trying, I will die. I will walk among the living dead. To ignore injustice in this world is to let yourself die. I won't stop. I won't be silenced.

I will use love to overcome this dark world.

The Question Isn't For God...It's For Us

It's been really strange being home. With each passing month, I feel more and more empty. I feel like life is passing me by; as if I'm letting my chances to do what I may have been made to do, simply blow on past. I am excited for what is coming, as the future holds possibility, but until that comes (and hopefully comes soon), I'm not quite sure what to do. After almost a year and a half of studying injustice and working to bring freedom to those who are chained down by oppression, sitting in my parents house in the rural area of Pittsburgh seems so...not for me. I am glad I have been able to spend time with friends and family and catch up with people that I haven't been in close contact with. I'm happy to be involved in my home church, whom I missed while I was gone and found a place where I am able to serve them while I'm home - but I feel like there's more I need to be doing. After seeing a lot of the different things that I have seen, I don't know that I can simply settle down to a 5 day a week job. Not that this is a bad thing if that's what you choose to do. We need people in those jobs. For myself though, I've never belonged in those areas.

I've never found contentment in jobs like the one I currently have. I found contentment in the jungles of the Amazon, while I cried out to God asking why he could let such injustice happen to the Natives and to the children of Puerto Vhelo, or in Bosnia, where I can see the Sarajevo Roses scattered throughout the city, a reminder of those who died during the siege in the 90's, or in Auschwitz, where unspeakable horrors were brought into reality and genocide was committed without remourse. How can I possibly find contentment or hope or life in any of these things? It was when I looked into the eyes of those who suffered from these, when I spoke with women still recovering from the wars, when I played with the children who were left in the jungles to die as infants, when I befriended the soldiers who fought off the Serbian Army as they lay siege to their beautiful city. It is seeing the hope and life in these people that I find this.

When I think of the horrors that are currently destroying this world, the injustice that enslaves us, in a general way - I find myself overwhelmed. Where can I make a dent? How can this happen? If people don't care now, why will they later? But when I set my focus, when I look into the eyes of those affected and see hope within them, that is when I can see clearly. That is when the scales fell from my eyes. I see my friends, working to fight sex trafficking by making and publishing books and documentaries, to bring awareness. I also see them on the ground, not just asking people to help, but actually being that help. I see other friends, working to bring an end to a long running war, so that a new generation may not know war, or those working to save the refugees who are disowned in their surrounding countries for being where they're from. I can see the dents being made. I can see the pain washing away when my friends, who have long suffered under the chains of oppression, are welcomed and loved and included.

So I guess - when I was crying out to God, asking him how he could let things like this happen, I realized he wasn't. It wasn't that he was letting them happen. He was trying to stop them from happening. He was sending people to break those chains. He was sending me to bring love to a world of hate and despair. I found contentment because I realized, God's not ignoring these issues but is actively doing something about them. I read a story once, about a young woman who had been a victim of sex trafficking. In that time, she never wondered where God was. Her faith was strong and she knew God was with her, but her real question was, "where are God's people?" We look at the world and see a broken, fragile existence that many have given up on and we ask where God is. Maybe we're looking at it wrong though. Maybe God has been there all along, and is just waiting on those to take up their call to fight injustice. Maybe it's not God that's the problem, but us. We just choose to blame God because we don't want to take responsibility for a fallen world.

I realize now, in my asking how God could allow such things to happen, that he simply asked right back, "how could you allow such things to happen?" The question needs to be directed at ourselves. How can I let a tyrant abduct children to fight in his war? How can I sit by while people go hungry and cold on the streets of my city? How can I be silent while so many don't have a voice? There are a lot of ways to get involved with fighting injustice. Not everyone needs to or is even meant to fly overseas and take it head on. We can fight injustice in our everyday, by choosing to simply not gossip or put down those who we may think are lesser than ourselves. For myself though, while I will try to do just that and more, I feel this tug to be more involved. I don't care about security and 401k's and all that, but I care about the poor and the broken. I care about helping those who need help. I care about seeing those who go unseen. I care about listening to those who go unheard. I know I make mistakes, even by being blind to those around me who suffer from these very things, and for that I'm sorry, but I will not give up trying to become someone who can do exactly as I've said. I'll keep trying. I can't allow such things to happen in my own life anymore, and I can sit by while it happens throughout the world. I'm willing and ready to take injustice head on.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Greetings From Prague

Finally, I have internet! It’s been so long since my last update, I know, but I thank you for waiting patiently as I continue my work over here. Last time you all heard from me, I was in Sarajevo. It was so wonderful being in Sarajevo. I really think we did a lot of great things while we were there. We did work in a ministry center which is used by numerous ministries in Sarajevo, taught English to some really wonderful and cute kids, helped a recovering drug addict who is now a believer (great testimony) fix a hole in his roof and paint his rooms and met so many people…it was great. We left Sarajevo for Budapest on May 9th. It was sad to go, but we knew God had more planned for us.

Riding on the train to Budapest wasn’t bad; we arrived later that evening and got to the place we were staying. Budapest is so beautiful. If you get the chance to go there, you should really go. While praying, one of our team members felt led to go and travel to where the prostitutes are and give them flowers so they can know they are worth more than what money can buy and are precious to God. We took the metro to a certain area in the city and split off in two’s and three’s. I thought we would be able to find them rather easily. We took a small back street and began walking. After about 15 minutes and seeing no one, we decided to turn back (my teammate and I). Only problem was, we couldn’t remember which way was back. So, we picked a road and began walking down it, still hoping to find someone to give these flowers to. We finally found the main street and started walking back. We were pretty sure that we weren’t giving these flowers to any body at this point so we just tried to meet up with our team again at the meeting point and not be lost. While we were walking down the street, we saw some blankets flowing off a stoop. As we approached, we saw a small, old lady lying on the stoop, a dirty pillow under her head and a beaten rag of a blanket lying on top of her. She didn’t really notice me but something led me to approach her. I slowly bent down and raised the flowers in front of her (a bouquet of flowers). When she met my eyes, I could see loneliness and sadness, distrust and a caution stirring within. Her eyes fell to the flowers and then back to me, when I watched all of those previous things break. She finally realized what I was doing. Slowly, she reached out and took the flowers, almost in disbelief that I was even real. When her hands touched, her face was stone, not sure what to think, but as she pulled the flowers from my hand, everything in her seemed to melt and hope seemed to shine out of her. She looked up and gave me one of the most heartfelt and beautiful smiles I may have seen on this entire trip, at least since the Serbian woman. As we walked away, we both turned back and looked at the woman; she was smelling the flowers with a wonder and amazement in her eyes. She seemed peaceful and content, even if just in that moment. It was a beautiful sight to see.

After Budapest, we headed up to Kosice, Slovakia to stay with Dayna, one of my mother’s friends and one of my missions’ supporters (who is reading this same email as you and has gotten all the same emails). Slovakia was great. Dayna was such a wonderfully hospitable person and helped us so greatly. Her family will be moving soon to Belgrade, Serbia. Please pray for their move and for their family. They are really amazing people. While we were in Slovakia, we were working alongside US Steel. Half of the team worked in a school primarily made up of Roma children from the surrounding village and the other worked manual labor fixing up a Jewish Cemetery and some other work. I worked in the school. It was a lot of fun being with the children, playing games, speaking English, answering questions and just showing them they are loved. After a few days in Kosice, we rented cars and drove to Krakow (where I had authentic Polish Pierogies…first time having pierogies outside of Pittsburgh). Driving through Europe is a lot of fun. It’s really very beautiful here. Krakow is a lovely place but a sadness still lingers there from World War II. Only about 30 minutes from the city is Auschwitz. It was very difficult to visit a place where so much evil happened. I’ve studied a lot of World War II and the evil’s of the Third Reich, but studying and seeing with my own eyes are two very different things. I don’t remember praying that day while we were there. I didn’t know what to pray. I didn’t entirely know what to think other than questioning how human beings could do such terrible things to other human beings. It terrified me. Afterwards, I couldn’t keep but to pray that this never happens ever again. Ever. Sadly, I know the truth that this is still happening today in so many parts of the world. The Karen tribe of Burma, forced into neighboring Thailand so as to not be exterminated permanently, the Acholi-tribes of Northern Uganda, the Rwandan massacre and Bosnian massacre, both in the 90’s, Apartheid in South Africa, the war raging in the Congo. Why are we ignoring these issues? How can we sit around and discuss the horrors of the past and ignore the present? Why are their 27 million slaves in the world today, more than were transported during 400 years of Trans-Atlantic slave trade? Why are women stripped of their rights and dignity and forced to have sex – and no one does anything?

I guess this is one of the reasons why I’m doing what I’m doing. I can’t sit around and do nothing. I really hope I’m making a dent in making this world a better place, even if just a little bit, while on this trip. We continued onward from Krakow to Prague. Once again, Prague is absolutely beautiful and if you ever get an opportunity to go, you really need to take it. It’s astounding. So much history here. So many beautiful buildings. 14th century homes line the streets in the upper sections of Old Town. Gothic churches, enormous synagogues, more statues than I’ve ever seen in my life, it’s really incredible. Prague used to be in the Top 20 most visited places in the world for sex tourism. While it’s illegal in Czech Republic to practice prostitution, it’s very tolerated. During our time here, we will possibly try, like in Budapest, to meet and talk with some of these ladies, hear their stories and show them a love like they haven’t known, a love that goes beyond human touch and monetary exchange. A love that cannot be bought or sold, but one that dwells within each and every one of us. A love that has been distorted and slowly destroyed by the grotesques nature of mankind as these women are abused and kept bonded within their own hell. Maybe they aren’t all trapped within their profession, but many are slaves – there is no doubt about that. Many, if not most, did not choose to do this but were deceived into such a horrible line of work. While it can be hard for us as westerners to understand how you could fall for something like this, the facts remain and the truth is that a lot of these girls were tricked and for fear of their lives and their families lives, they stay and do what they need to do. I hope we can show them they are worth more than what they can perform. They are worth the entire world.

Thank you so much for your continued support. Please pray for our team who was in Russia, they have arrived in Amsterdam and are working with prostitutes there as well. They know it’s going to be very hard for them and are asking for prayer support as I too ask you to keep them in prayer. The Morocco team is still doing work there, and great work at that. Please keep them in prayer as well. We will be going to Germany and then Amsterdam next. It’s been a long trip but a good one at that. I want you to know that your support has been so crucial to my being here and I can’t thank you all enough for how you’ve blessed this team and me. Though you are not here, you are just as much a part of this trip as I am or anyone else who is here with me, and I do believe that. Thank you for partnering with me in this. I really hope and pray that the Lord will bless you all so very much. I will be back in Pittsburgh this summer and am very excited to share more of my experiences with you all. Thank you again. God Bless.



Thursday, April 9, 2009

Update from Serbia

Hey everyone,
I have a chance for a real quick update. While I was in Serbia, on our last day there, a small group of us were walking around after dinner and we came across a really old lady, sitting on a stoop outside of a shop. She looked lonely and we wanted to help in some way so my friend, Meredith thought to buy her some popcorn. So I bought her some popcorn and a bottle of water and sat with her and gave it to her. Her face went from loneliness to sheer joy and she took the popcorn and water from me. I continued to sit with her as her smile had me locked to that stoop beside her. I didn't want to get up - even though i couldn't communicate with her (she spoke NO english) I just sat with her. After some time of her speaking to me and smiling and laughing, I asked if I could take a picture of her by motioning with the camera, she agreed. It was a beautiful moment that I will not soon forget. After we left and continued walking, we had to turn around and go back past her. I waved as we passed and she looked as if she was going to jump out of her seat. Her smile reached across her face and she waved with so much joy and love. Just in that small moment, I saw the Kingdom of God open up and surround this woman. In a moment of belonging, a moment of love and comfort, a moment of sharing with her by simply sitting with her so she wouldn't sit alone, I saw the Kingdom of God move. It was beautiful. She was beautiful. There is one of the photos of her in this email.

After Serbia, we left for Kosovo. Kosovo was awesome. The people there are amazing and are very welcoming. They also love American's which was different from many of the other countries so far, so that made it even nicer. We made a lot of friends during our few days in Kosovo and we all hope to go back again and see them.

We are currently in Macedonia but are leaving shortly for Albania. I spent most of my time talking about the Serbian Grandmother. Please continue praying for all of us and also for the Russia and Morocco teams. God is doing amazing things over here and in those places as well and we're very excited for what he has in store. I'm not sure when I'll be online next but I'll try to keep you all updated again as soon as I can and send some more pictures. May the Lord bless all of you. Thank you for your support.


Thursday, April 9th - Tirana, Albania
Friday, April 10th - Dubrovnik, Croatia
Saturday, April 11th - Dubrovnik
Sunday, April 12th - Sarajevo, Bosnia (till May 7th)