Anyone perusing my blog or Facebook page might be surprised to find that I live and work in a rural Swazi community. They might be a bit surprised to learn I was a missionary. Because the photos are few and far-between. The anecdotal stories of so-and-so who is destitute, in need of prayer, or “won to Christ” are pretty much none-existent.
This is on purpose.
Whenever it comes time for a newsletter, I get stressed. What photo do I include this time? Do I need to go and pose something? When was the last time I took a photo of our “work”? The answer is simple. I don’t take many photos. Yes, I take pictures when Sean and I have adventures. Or of my dog doing something hilarious or weird. Or a stunning sunset. But I’m not one for whipping out my smart phone and snapping pics of half-naked African children, then blasting it off to my “readers” and “supporters” so they might see what a cool life I lead. Call me crazy, but something feels a bit weird about that. A bit like exploitation. (and let’s be honest, I don’t like perpetuating ideas that all of Africa’s children are naked. Or that because I live in a country of 1.2 million Africans, I somehow know something about a gargantuan continent.)
This unease also crops up in story-telling. How do I share the inspiring stories of friends, church family, and community members that has challenged me, without it seeming like I’m reporting on a recent project? Why has such story-telling become some integral piece in missionary work? In ministry?
On the one hand. I LOVE me a good story. Riveting. Challenging. Inspiring. Short, to the point, and poignant. Gets me off my chair and out into the world, wanting to give and be and love and share with reckless abandon. I assume others are like me in that. And so I aim for my story-telling to be one of picture-painting of what God is up to in my corner of the world. As means to glorify Him, change our perspectives on said corner, and stretch our imaginations to dream bigger and deeper for the next go-round.
Only recently, were words put to some of these uneasy thoughts & hesitations. Sean’s professor and our new friend gave him a book. Friendship at the Margin by Christopher L. Heuertz and Christine D. Pohl. I’m not sure my summary of their thoughts would give any fair justice, so I’ll encourage your own discovery, while sharing a few excerpts.
This book comes as a part in a series aimed towards reconciliation and “geared towards what it means to pursue hope in areas of brokenness.” Particularly, the two authors explore, well, friendships in those broken places. Their approach gives life and hope to the dreams Sean and I dream (and dream(ed) with many friends over the years and journeys) – an approach that says we don’t come as ministers “to” the poor, but as ministers “among” our neighbors. It’s not a “I have answers, let me teach you,” but “we are all broken, yet each have a piece to offer up for each other.”
When I moved here, I spoke a lot about how “I’d learn from my neighbors as much as they’d learn from me.” And “I don’t want to make it about me, but about us, about them.” While some of that truth remains, I’ve realized I’m actually quite naive to assume I had anything to offer. My brokenness runs deeps and affects much. I know about zilch related to community. I talk too much. Listen too little. Am fickle and prone to emotions that dictate my failing actions. In short, I’m a hot mess. Trust me on this. Trust me.
And so when I see someone down the road from me doing something awesome, something that looks a lot like Jesus (whether they planned it like that or not), I get excited. And I want to share. I want to shout their praises. To bear witness to their incredible humanity, their divine grace and generosity, and humble spirit. I want to dance around them and clap my hands together with glee. So why is it, I feel compelled to run to my computer, and type out this victory for others, outside our community to read and glee in? Am I that terrible that celebrating with my neighbor?
Actually. I’m afraid of being a neighbor. Afraid of getting too involved. Afraid of getting in awkward situations. Ashamed that I want to say, “no” more than, “yes.” Sometimes, I’m not even sure what it looks like to be a friend to someone. Someone who’s not a project, potential-convert-to-a-certain-life-or-belief. Someone who’s not exactly like me. Or someone who is exactly like me. Being outside of what I’ve known, and afraid to mess-it-up often paralyzes me… but that, dear readers of my exploited heart, might take us in another direction.
For now, know that my lack of photos is intentional. And the ones I share are usually with permission from the subjects involved. I never want my friends to be the brunt of a campaign to get me more money, praise, jewels-in-a-crown, or notice. Cuz friends don’t exploit friends. And if I’m exploiting them, then we’re not really friends. And if I’m not friends with my neighbors, then gosh, what am I doing?
The greater the distance [between career missionaries and the local population] & the more complex the work, the harder it can be to assume that local relationships matter, that they might be interesting or satisfying, or that they are important to one’s own relationship to God. Such distancing also makes it harder to resist turning people into projects and drives us to find our support and identity in our friendships with other missionaries and coworkers” (page 33).
May the distance be swallowed by hearts that chase after a King and Kingdom not of this world. May the work be simple. May it be clear that relationships matter to me, that I’m interested, and that these neighbors of mine are important to my own relationship to God. May these friends never be projects and may my language and story-telling exemplify friendships that transform us all.
How can photos or stories be shared without exploiting the subjects? How have you seem the line be smeared? done right?