Not Just Girls in Cages: Love146 Trip (Part One)

The first week of October, I visited Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines with Love146, an organization dedicated to the end of child trafficking and exploitation. This week I’ll be posting a 3-part series of posts about what I learned and saw on that trip.

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Do you know that thing that happens, when you share a struggle that you have with someone and you pour your heart out and they begin their answer with, “Well, it’s simple. You just…” and it feels like they punched you in the gut? And you want to scream, “It’s not simple to ME or I wouldn’t be talking about it with you!”

Prior to my trip, I’d tell people a rough version of where I was going and what I was doing and I’ll have to admit, I thought it was a simple problem: just get people to stop exploiting children.

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Part of the problem is that when we think about this issue, many of us think of girls in cages. And while that image pulls at our heartstrings (at least it should!), in reality, child trafficking and exploitation is much more ambiguous and complicated.

Yes, everyone agrees we need to reduce the vulnerability of children. Duh. But that is much easier said than done, which was starkly demonstrated during the first several days of the trip in Cambodia.  Consider the vulnerabilities inherently present in Cambodian life:

You have a culture in which, just a generation ago, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge killed 25% of the population – all the doctors, educators, artists, people with “soft hands.” Nearly everyone we met had a story about aunts, uncles, parents, or even themselves subjected to this brutal regime. It’s a whole culture sorting its PTSD.

Largely because of Pol Pot, you have a very poor culture – even compared to its neighbors Vietnam and Thailand. And where there’s poverty, there is exploitation. And where there’s exploitation, children are the most vulnerable.

Culturally, Cambodia is mostly Buddhist, a faith not often associated with a strong justice ethic. Rather, the focus of Buddhism is on inner peace in spite of one’s circumstance (a message more of us in the Christian tradition could learn). However, when a culture is not focused on justice, it creates an attitude that says, “this is my lot in life, I need to accept it.”

And finally, a marked difference from our culture is the idea that children – particularly the oldest daughter – are responsible for their ancestors. So, when we interviewed garment factory workers in Phnom Penh and asked them how much they make, they reported their base salary is $128/month and that they send about $80 of that home to their rural village. And if they get a raise, all of that is sent home as well, keeping these girls impoverished and vulnerable.

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Against these cultural norms, it became clear that preventing the trafficking and exploitation of children is a complex and nuanced issue.  I could say a whole lot more here, but my point is this: as those who have the means to help, we need to avoid our tendency to minimize complicated problems by saying “They should just…” or “It’s simple,” and rather look deeply into what’s happening in the world and see how we can best put our resources to work making a difference. It’s easy to send money to a campaign to free girls from cages, but it’s more difficult to read and investigate and give to the issue, even when it’s nuanced, complicated and ambiguous.

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The week after I got home, I turned on the TODAY show one morning and the top story was how a former basketball star was in critical condition after going on a bender in a Las Vegas brothel. Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, men are purchasing teenage girls for sex, Jews & Palestinians are living in a powder keg, and drug cartels are killing civilians in Mexico.

Our culture is hell bent on keeping focus on the trivial. As good people who want to make a difference, we can’t be lulled to sleep by the inanity of American culture, passing off trivia as news.

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If you don’t know what else to do, and this post moves you in any way, please consider making a donation to Love146. Love146 is a terrific organization that has studied the issue and developed deep expertise in the areas of prevention education and survivor care, while maximizing the effect of donor contributions.

 

[about the photo: I took this photo with my iPhone6s at the Ta Prohm Temple at Angkor Wat, just outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia. I haven’t filtered it in any way. It really is that amazing, and yes those are trees roots growing over the temple walls on the left.]

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What Do You Say in the Face of Grief?

“There aren’t words to say // words aren’t remembered // but presence is // a good friend once told me // And he was there.” – Caedmon’s Call, “Center Aisle”

Overnight, my Facebook feed filled up with pictures and tributes to a woman we knew, who lived just down the street from Brimfield house. When our oldest boys were younger, we played on the same ball teams, we went to all the same school events, and I seem to remember her daughter – now a senior in high school – babysat our youngest boys a time or two when they were much smaller.

On Sunday she passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving a gaping hole in the hearts of her family and our community.

What do we say in these moments? How do we speak of God when the universe seems so random – arbitrary and cruel to take someone so loved? Some of us lapse into well-meaning, but empty clichés, others of us drift towards the darkness of despair.

When I was younger, long-haired, ear-pierced, fresh out of seminary, I thought I had good, logical answers defending the seeming capriciousness of God. I had well-developed theological constructions that would help me explain to people why their loved ones passed, or why God “took” some and left others, or why God “allowed” some personal tragedy or another.

But after 16 years in full-time pastoral ministry and especially on days like this one, those “well-developed” answers ring hollow. And despite my numerous misgivings about the theology I was taught in my teens and twenties, what I stubbornly hold on to, is that Christian Theology insists God – in Jesus – stepped into the agony of what it means to be human. It insists that in our pain (and to be fair, in our celebration as well) – God showed up, became human. And not human in a keep-your-distance-from-suffering kind of way, but rather in the poverty and oppression and dirt of 1st century Palestine. In fact, one of my favorite stories of Jesus is about how – upon hearing of the death of his friend – Jesus wept.

If we saw the family today there are no words, no “well-developed” theological answers that we could give that would bring their wife/mother/sister back or ease the pain of the deep loss I’m sure they must feel. There is no explanation or defense of God and “God’s plan” that will ease the suffering.

But rather, I’m confident that the Brimfield/Kickapoo community will rise up and walk with them, that we will be present. Meals will be prepared, tear-filled hugs shared, tributes offered, flowers bought and good people will act out their belief – that when bad things happen, we show up for each other, just as God did for us. That, I believe is at the heart of the gospel – that in our deepest agony, God shows up through the hands, feet, hugs, the presence of his people.

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Where the Sex Trade Got Real

Four girls sit in a market stall not much larger than a single-car garage, intensely focused on their work. Each one hovers over a small notebook in which they practice artwork that, once they’ve achieved a level of confidence, they will paint on the fingernails of paying customers. They’re clearly embarrassed by the attention of the eight Americans watching. When they dare to look up from their work, they do so blushing.

These four girls work in a beer garden. I know what you’re thinking: craft beers served in large pint glasses, maybe even in lederhosen. But here in Phnom Penh, beer garden means something else entirely. Here, the beer garden (as well as the karaoke bars) are the places where young girls like these are expected to not only to serve drinks, but to entice the patron to eventually pay for other services.

These four girls – who look to be in their mid- to late teens – began their training with the Precious Women ministry just yesterday. They will be trained to paint nails first, as a way of learning a skill that will give them the ability to make income so that they can quit their job as a beergarden girl. The hope is that they will choose to enter a year-long vocational training program so that eventually they can arrange a micro-loan in order to start their own business. But, to be honest, that seems a million miles from here, and there are so many obstacles.

The reason I’m in Phnom Penh with Love146 is to see the how complex the problem of human trafficking is. We’ve met with various groups that Love146 has partnered with over the past decade, and let me tell you, there are so many factors that create vulnerabilities in these young girls. There’s a cultural vulnerability stemming from the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, there is legislation, familial and cultural expectations and attitudes that make these girls vulnerable to those eager to exploit their bodies for money. We’ve sat with groups trying to make a difference and those who have dug deeply into the research trying to understand the problem and how to make a difference, how to end the trafficking of children, yes, but also all those who are vulnerable.

But, standing at the door of the market stall, watching these four girls practice their designs, I’m suddenly choked up and tears well up in my eyes, hidden behind my aviators. In just the next 12 hours, these young girls will be groped and fondled and eventually expected to fulfill the whims of men two and three times their age. And suddenly, right now, shit gets real. In this beautiful country, filled with beautiful people who almost sing their beautiful thank yous, hellos and goodbyes to us, this is what will happen tonight.

It breaks my heart. And I’m sure it breaks the heart of God as well.

If reading this makes you want to do something… please consider giving a gift to Love146.

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Why I’m in Southeast Asia This Morning

On the day this goes to post, I’ll be visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia. While most Americans are likely more familiar with Hitler’s crimes against the Jews in WWII, the 20th Century saw plenty of “gangster statesman*” murdering the masses. It’s estimated that Joseph Stalin killed somewhere around 50 million Russian, Mao killed 45 million in the four year “Great Leap Forward” and in Cambodia in the late seventies, Pol Pot  and the Khmer Rouge murdered somewhere around 2 million Cambodians – out of a population of approximately 8 million – in the late seventies. The Killing Fields are a number of sites where Pot and the Khmer Rouge slaughtered their countrymen and buried their remains.

(Can I pause for a second? Those numbers are staggering – the number of lives thrown away in the name of destructive ideologies. It’s really overwhelming.)

The reason I’m in Southeast Asia is actually about another kind of violence, though. Last spring, Jennifer and I went to New York with some friends where we were exposed to the work of Love146, an organization dedicated to “THE ABOLITION OF CHILD TRAFFICKING AND EXPLOITATION. NOTHING LESS.” My friend Peggy serves on the board, and we attended the Red Gala, where we were challenged by the reality of the problem and the work that Love146 is doing. (If you really want to hear the heart of Love146, you should listen to the founder, Rob Morris, on Alec Baldwin’s podcast, “Here’s the Thing.” I cried driving home from church late one night as I listened to Rob tell his story. Or, this video is powerful as well.)

There are wide-ranging statistics for the prevalence of human trafficking, but whatever statistics you choose to believe, what is agreed upon is that human trafficking, of which child trafficking is a particularly heinous kind, is a problem more prevalent than most Americans want to believe. (Here’s a Rolling Stone article that gives some perspective.) And southeast Asia is an area where the problem is particularly prevalent.

So, due to the gracious generosity of a family foundation, I am traveling with Love146 on their partner trip. I flew into Phnom Penh, Cambodia Saturday night, and will also visit Bangkok, Thailand and finally Manila, Philippines. Along the way, we’ll visit red light districts, talk to people doing the work of abolition and visit the Round Home, a safe home for girls rescued from the sex trade.

So why am I going? The truthful answer is, I’m not sure exactly. This isn’t a “let’s go build a house” type of mission trip. We’re there to observe, to see the injustice and what’s being done. The trip is a chance to put actual faces to a huge, and sometimes seemingly overwhelming, “issue.” I’m sure I’ll have a series of posts about it when I get home. But for now, I just know that this opportunity was something put in front of me, and it felt like an invitation to which I was compelled to say yes. I don’t know what I hope to “get out of it”; it just feels like something I need to do. So, I’ll take a cue from Pope Francis and ask you to pray for me.

I don’t know what kind of access I’ll have to the Internet, so I won’t be responding to any comments, but I look forward to seeing your comments and discussion when I get home.

* I borrowed this term from historian Paul Johnson and his book Modern Times. If you really want a great read of the twentieth century, the premise of Modern Times is that “ideas have consequences,” and the history of the 20th century is one in which the ideologies of the “gangster statesmen” has been a catastrophe in human history.

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Why Pope Francis Wasted His Time in America

Well, at the time of writing, Pope Francis is flying back to the Vatican after a week visiting Washington D.C., New York and Philadelphia.

I’ll confess, I may have gotten a little caught up in all the hoopla and, despite being a decidedly “low church” guy, who regularly wears ripped jeans and tshirts to preach, I watched the pope mobile make its way up Fifth Avenue as he waved to the faithful. And I may have also gotten caught up in some of the commentary surrounding his remarks to Congress and the U.N. I genuinely like this pope and his message. I admire how he graciously speaks truth to power.

But there was one particular conversation that I was most interested in and it’s this question: “What will be the lasting impact of the pope’s visit to America?”

My answer: none. Zero. Zip. Nada. Besides perhaps inspiring John Boehner to step down prematurely (which I admire), the news has already moved on to exploding manhole covers and Matt Damon’s new movie The Martian. (Watching The Today Show makes me sad about America. Maybe I should quit.)

The reason for my cynicism is based on a simple observation. Unless we make extraordinary effort, we humans tend to filter out what conflicts with our preexisting notions. Listening to NPR’s On the Media podcast yesterday, they talked about how Republicans can identify with the pope’s pro-life stance while Democrats can rally around his concern for the poor and the environment. Meanwhile both groups simply ignore that with which they disagree.

It happens all the time. For example, there’s been this shift in the last year or so where Republicans say, in response to new studies that at least show a strong correlation between human activity and the warming environment, “Well, I’m no scientist… but they’re wrong,” or “I have no knowledge of the specifics of said study, but it’s arrogant to come to the conclusion they came to.” In other words, “I don’t care what you say, what evidence you present, I simply refuse to acknowledge it.”

Yes, I know, I’m probably ruffling some feathers here because I’m getting “political,” but it isn’t just Republicans; it’s all of us about everything. And it’s fine, I suppose, to be stubborn and inflexible in terms of one’s beliefs and the host of social and economic views that divide America these days (although it probably makes you a not-so-pleasant conversationalist).  But it’s dangerous to have the same fortress mentality when it comes to the self.

And perhaps the self, the fragile ego, is the place where we are most resistant to new ideas. I wrote last week of owning our stories, but this is brave, difficult work. It’s much easier to simply believe what one believes about oneself and ignore all evidence to the contrary. It’s easier to believe I’m a “good guy” and ignore the wake of employees who keep quitting the organization I lead. Biographically speaking, there was a time when it was much easier to believe that I was “fit” despite the evidence of the scale that said I was obese. (“Well, you know the BMI is rigged for people with a smaller bone structure…blah, blah, blah,” I’d say. It’s amazing the bullshit we can sell ourselves to keep affirming our story, huh?)

And so we keep our walls up, keeping at bay any evidence that threatens our fragile facades. But it’s dangerous to the formation of our soul, of our psyche to have such a fortress mentality. It endangers our relationships when a spouse or friend points out a behavior or attitude and we refuse, ignore or excuse the observation. It endangers our careers when our boss or coworker points out how we continually rub people the wrong way, and we choose to ignore their insight. It endangers our social spheres when we keep finding ourselves in the same messy, dramatic situations, and we refuse to examine what part we have to play.

Until we cultivate the habit of careful listening, of curiosity about ourselves and of humility, we are doomed to be stuck as the person we are right now. No growth, no learning, no becoming. In short, we are on the pathway of George Castanza. And no one aspires to be George Castanza.

So, the next time someone says something that you disagree with, before you rush off and write a witty, dismissive response, what if you took a moment to explore the alternative idea? What if Republicans actually looked at the science of environmental warming? What if Democrats would consider the arguments of the pro-life crowd? What if I believed my wife and changed my behavior? What if I believed the BMI and changed my habits?

When I listen, it doesn’t always mean I’ll change. In fact, sometimes listening carefully reinforces what I already believe. For example, when I read a conservative blog post – which I do from time to time – I’m generally more convinced of what I believe. But I usually come away with a clearer understanding of the nuances of our disagreement. Which, frankly, just makes me a kinder, gentler, better human being.

So, yes, I’m skeptical about the impact of Pope Francis’ visit. Our current national character is not one that invites dissenting views or changing one’s mind. We’re rather stuck in our political camps and can’t seem to hear anything but the voices that affirm what we already believe. But I’m optimistic for myself, and for you, that we really can become something more, something that looks more reflective of the Imago Dei today, than I was yesterday.

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Yours? Mine? Ours?

Recently I was boarding an airplane and I was amused by the silliness of the boarding procedure. Of course I understand the efficiency of boarding in groups and all that, but the thing where the first class passengers walk across the blue carpet, then they close that “lane” and have the rest of us schmucks walk in a different “lane.” Dumb.

And yesterday, I got a call from my primary care physician. He’s firing me as a patient. He only wants to be a doctor to rich people. Of course, I see all the benefits to him, and to his patients, but when it comes down to it, he only wants to serve the “haves.”

I have a good friend. We don’t see eye-to-eye on political stuff. He’s a solid right-wing guy and I’m solidly “undecided” in every presidential election. But on this one thing we agree; the growing gap  between the “have’s” and the “have-not’s” doesn’t bode well for the American future. I like to say, that the gap can only grow so far before you get a major rebellion by the “have nots” that leads to violence (e.g. The French Revolution).

And the reason I’m writing about these things is because it’s symptomatic of an American distinction between what’s yours and mine. My house is mine. It’s not yours. Your car is yours, not mine. This is the way we think, the way we act, the way we live. Even the most altruistic among us have limits. Even the most generous of us still has a sense of what’s ours and what’s yours.

That’s why as I was reading a book this morning, I was really struck by a comparison of African tribal culture to American culture. The book is called Poor Millionaires. (And btw, I LOVE this book. It’s a great story, hits on a lot of great ideas, and it’s really well-written!)

The two authors – one raised in suburban Minneapolis, the other in a nomadic, Kenyan tribe – met at a Christian college, and in their first encounter, the African (Michael) say to Nathan, “Can I drive our truck,” referring to Nathan’s truck. After Nathan corrects Michael, “Our truck?” Michael explains:

“Oh, sorry. I don’t mean to offend. In Africa, we have a saying, ‘I am,’ — he pointed at himself — ‘because we are’ — he pointed at me. ‘We are because I am.'”

He continues a little bit later,

“In my tribe it is impolite to say ‘this is my cow’ or this is my hut.’ Instead we say this is ‘our cow,’ or ‘our hut.’ We don’t own things in the same way people seem to here in America. In fact, if I were to drive this truck to the village and say, ‘This is my truck,’ the elders would get so furious and say something like, ‘No, Kimpur (his African name), this is our truck because you are one of us.'”

I know that changing American culture isn’t really going to happen. We aren’t going to ever think like nomadic Africans. And I don’t really even think that American Christians can change this about ourselves. It’s too deep, too ingrained, to much a part of us.

But maybe there our ways that I can live more with the mentality of “ours” than I currently do. What if it’s better to live this way? What if being part of something is more satisfying than having something?

This past winter was really bleak for Jennifer and I. And at Christmastime – knowing we were living in a small-for-six-people apartment that faced north and literally got no sunshine – some new friends offered us their house to use for Christmas as they were headed out-of-town for a week. “What’s ours is yours,” he said, as he handed me the key. “And I don’t want this back.”

And I believe him – to a point. I don’t think what’s really his is ours. I don’t think he’d approve if I showed up after completing a run on the Rock Island Trail, threw my sweaty clothes in his laundry basket and jumped in his shower. That level of “ours-ness” may be an African reality, but it’s surely not an American sensibility. But, as I’ve gotten to know this friend, I think that he’s really trying to live in as open-handed a way as he can.

Couldn’t we all create a bit more of a sense of ours? Couldn’t we all let go of our possessions, our time, our energy, our pursuits so that we could share more? I know that I sure could…

(Feel like I ought to hat tip Tony Jones here. I’ve been working through the books on his Books of Note post from early April and they’ve all been excellent so far – including his book)

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