Where I’ve Been

Hi! Remember me?

I’m the guy who used to post on this blog.

Okay, it’s only been a couple of weeks, but it feels like FOREVER!

I have a real post simmering, but I just wanted to check in. I was meeting with one of the leadership teams in our church earlier in the week and had to give a report. And in giving the report, I recognized how much has happened in the past month. So many good things. So here’s a quick rundown.

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For the second time, our church hosted Clare Loughrige to teach a workshop on the Enneagram, and then she stuck around to teach at church on Sunday. The people of our church have come to love her.

On a personal level, hosting Clare in our home for the weekend is a real job-perk for me (and for Jennifer). We’ve both come to love our interactions with her. She’s a skilled spiritual director and asks probing/insightful questions in a gentle way.

As a pastor, it’s so good for me to get to interact with people outside of the church. It helps me get perspective.

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The next weekend we hosted Rob Morris. Rob is the cofounder and president of Love146. (You might remember that I went to Southeast Asia last fall with Love146.) I think many of us who know of Love146 were familiar with Rob’s story and had expectations, but he blew us away. (Link to the Teaching.)

And again, personally, I had the opportunity Saturday night to sit up super-late drinking whisky with Rob and a couple other guys. And it was one of those great, mutually stimulating conversations when time flies and you’re sad when it’s over. So good for my soul.

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And then it was Holy Week, and I spent 4 evenings sitting around a table at a local bar talking about Jesus with some people, and I loved that.

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And then, as soon as service was over on Easter morning, I walked to our already-loaded van and took off for Spring Break with my family.

What did the Deans do on Spring Break?

Nothing. We walked the one block from the house to the beach and back. We ate, slept, read, watched movies, played games, listened to Hamilton (a lot) and rested.

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Okay. Those are all my excuses. That’s where I’ve been. That’s why I haven’t written much. Life, in the last month, has been full of good conversations. Of course, between those good things there have been hard conversations, people have left our church, I’ve gotten angry at things and been wounded by others. But that’s life, ya know?

And so, that’s why the blog has taken a back seat. I’ve just been super, super busy, and have had lots of other things going on in my life and in my head. I hope to get back to a more normal schedule next week!

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The Redemption of All Things: Love146 Trip (Part Three)

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 is the final of three posts this week about that trip. Here’s a link to the first, and to the second.

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There’s this picture from the last night of our trip. I’m holding a bandurria, a short-necked guitar with fourteen strings, reminiscent of a mandolin. I’ve never held one before, but it’s close enough to a guitar that I’m finding my way around. In the picture my head is down, eyes focused on what my thick fingers are doing on this fragile instrument. Facing me is a young girl, probably six or seven years old, the one whose smile lights me up inside. In the picture, her small, delicate hand is on mine, showing me where to place my fingers, teaching me “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” In a few moments, I’ve got it down and we play together, laughing and smiling. A friend sent me the picture a couple days ago, and when I see it, it brings back the tears I held back that entire night.

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The last night of the trip was spent in Manila visiting the White and Round Homes. When Love146 first started, they worked with International Justice Mission and asked, “what can we do to help children?” And the answer from IJM was, “we need aftercare.” So, in response, Love146 started the Round Home, a home for rescued girls, staffed with therapists. In time, a home for boys – the White Home – was added as well.

I don’t know exactly what I expected, but I didn’t expect to be near tears the entire evening. After we briefly visited the White Home, all the boys and girls gathered at the Round Home to show us the gardens, goats, quail, chickens and catfish pond. And then they sang for us, played the instruments they are learning and ate with us. At the end of the evening a spontaneous dance party broke out and even the staff joined in.

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I’m still struggling to put into words what was so magical about that night, but I’ll do my best. After spending the previous week seeing people in the trenches trying to help boys and girls find a better life and after walking through the “entertainment” districts of Bangkok, this was the first time where we witnessed what redemption looks like. Sometimes, in our desire to help, we can be so serious, so focused on the evils in the world and what needs to be done, that we miss out on celebration. But that night at the Round Home, a celebration erupted.

[Theological Aside: The Bible is full of imagery that at the Redemption of all Things, there is joyous celebration and feasting. Even in the Hebrew Scriptures, a part of the tithe was set aside to but whatever one desired – strong drink included – and to celebrate!]

Throughout the night I’d have these moments where I would ask myself, “what hells and horrors have these children been witness to?” and then, I would get swept away again by their laughter, their joy in song and dance and the beauty of being alive. And no, their abuse can never be undone, but because of the work of Love146, because of the generosity of many donors, because of the work of the staff at the Round Home, these girls are on the pathway of redemption – their future is brighter.

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Before I left on this trip, people would ask me, “what do you hope to get out your trip?” and my truest answer was, “I don’t know. I’m going because the opportunity arose and I want to say ‘yes’ to the universe when it comes calling.”

I still don’t know all the words to say in answer to the question. It was an intense experience. I carried a book of poetry by Brian Andreas with me on the trip and this poem, called “Veteran Traveller,” says it so well:

carries a lot of suitcases

but all of them are empty

because she’s expecting

to completely fill them

with life by the end of

this trip

& then she’ll come home

& sort everything out

& do it all over again

I experienced a lot of life by the end of this trip. (I haven’t even talked about my 24 hours of severe food poisoning in Cambodia!) And I’m still sorting it out, still trying to figure out my place in all of this. I wish I had gobs of money that I could give. That last night at the Round Home, I could have given anything that was asked of me. For right now, I know that I can give my voice and my energy to this.

So, one last time, I’m asking you consider giving to Love146.  After seeing, up close and personal, what they do, who they are and what they’re about, I can vouch for them. I believe in what they do.

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If you have any questions, or want to know more about my trip, I’d love to sit with you over a coffee or a beer and tell you more, or, if you live farther away, send me an email, I’ll respond in a timely manner.

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How Strong Women are Changing the World: Love 146 Trip (Part Two)

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 is the 2nd of three posts this week about that trip. Here’s a link to the first.

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There’s a saying in Cambodia: “The tallest blade of grass is the one that is cut.”

After the Khmer Rouge systematically decimated the learned and artistic classes of Cambodian society in the late ’70s, a generation rose up conditioned to shy away from leadership. Who can blame them? If you saw what they saw, you’d be afraid to assert yourself too.

But confronting the problem of child trafficking and exploitation requires brave leadership. And indigenous leadership is absolutely the most effective. As outsiders we can assist, we can support, we can encourage but the people in the best position to do the work are the people themselves. That’s why, when you ask, “what can I do?” the answer truly is, give money to good organizations (like Love146) that have expertise and feet on the ground and know who to partner with in the work.

I was inspired by the leaders we encountered – nearly all strong women – who are choosing to stand up and lead. I’ll tell you some brief stories, but you should know – I’m obscuring names and some details to protect them and the young people they serve.

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We met a woman in Phnom Penh. She and her husband have started a ministry to garment factory workers. A study showed that in Phnom Penh almost 70% of the girls working as prostitutes in the bars were former garment factory workers. She and her husband are trying to get to these girls before they make bad decisions that will get them trapped. They are teaching them English and providing a social network.

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We met a woman who moved to Phnom Penh from a rural village when she was younger. She told us the story of starting her ministry, where she trains former sex workers in a trade and help them start their own shops. She told us through tears, “I went to the bars and when I met these girls, I fell in love with them.”

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We met a woman and her husband, who started a boutique shop selling XXXXXX. They exclusively hire girls who used to be sex workers in order to give them a way out. In the mornings, they teach English, teach them the Bible, teach them life skills, then the rest of the day, they run a business, teaching practical skills, so these girls have options.

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We met a woman in Bangkok who runs a coffee shop where she employs ladyboys. She started out by going into “massage parlors” where the ladyboys work and simply asking, “what can I do to help you?” She started by teaching them English, and her work grew into the current enterprise.

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Listen, I’m not sexist, there are plenty of men changing the world too. But on this trip, I was inspired by these courageous, focused, hard-working women, who are swimming against a cultural tide that is decidedly more patriarchal than our own and resistant to leadership in general. I was inspired by their courage and tenacity.

Sometimes, we need to sit down with people who are passionate about their calling – whatever it is. Talking to these women, reading Elizabeth Gilbert, hanging out with other passionate leaders – being near these kinds of people inspires me. Who inspires you? Who do you need to be near? You don’t need to go to Asia; there are probably people in your community, in your church, in your circles who are passionately pursuing their mission in life and for the price of a dinner, beer, or coffee and a couple well-placed questions, you can be inspired. (For me, these kinds of people are intoxicating!)

Here’s your assignment – particularly if you’re stuck in lethargy at the moment: Find a person who is passionate about something, anything really, and spend some time with them. Ask them about their passion. My guess is that you will feel a spark inside yourself.

[about the picture: this picture was taken by one of my teammates at Cheoung Ek, one of the many “killing fields” that dot Cambodia. The bracelets are left by visitors to honor the dead.]

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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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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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