War Photographer: Tara Livesay

Tara Livesay is my real-life hero (she will throttle me for saying that, but still–it’s true). She is a killer writer, thinker, mom, missionary, midwife, and long-distance runner. I love her because she is so honest, so in the thick of everything beautiful and awful about our world, and she can be absolutely hilarious in the midst of it all. I beg of you to check out her website, where you can learn all about her fabulous family and their life in Haiti. I have been looking forward to this post for a long time, and it dropped the hammer, just like I knew it would. Tara and her family are truly people who ask the question: how do we share these stories well? Because they must be told. 

photo by Troy Livesay

photo by Troy Livesay

A young couple moves into a new neighborhood. The next morning while they are eating breakfast, the young woman sees her neighbor hanging the wash outside. “That laundry is not very clean; she doesn’t know how to wash correctly. Perhaps she needs better laundry soap.” Her husband looks on, remaining silent. Every time her neighbor hangs her wash to dry, the young woman makes the same comments. A month later, the woman is surprised to see a nice clean wash on the line and says to her husband: “Look, she’s finally learned how to wash correctly. I wonder who taught her this? ” The husband replies, “I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows.” And so it is with life… What we see when watching others depends on the clarity of the window through which we look.–Author Unknown


When one of the poorest countries in the world happens to be positioned a mere 700 miles from the southern tip of one of the richest countries in the world,  short-term and long-term missions abound. I am citing no source but I’d venture to guess this is the most visited, blogged about, and photographed “mission” destination on the planet earth.


The convenient 90-minute plane ride from Miami means an estimated 200,000 people per year come to Haiti. Many seem to think that their group or purpose or trip is a one-of-a-kind and are incredulous when they hear how frequently large groups of matching T-shirts arrive here with similar plans. Additionally, there are thousands of longer-term workers sprinkled all across the island.


It is common for these expats to arrive thinking of people as projects.


As we are all prone to do, people show up here having already decided things about Haiti. They hear the tag lines and have watched or read the mass media news stories and they build their image of the country and her people and what they need before they ever set foot on Haitian soil. Wherever they hail from, they seem to arrive having heard about vodou, poverty, danger, an earthquake, and orphans.


For whatever reason there is a movement among evangelical churches and faith-based organizations that markets mission trips in such a way that it casts the missionary as a hero and those on the other side are in dire need of their help. This means that in addition to what the prospective visitor has heard and decided about Haiti, they are also being told that in one or two weeks they might be able to make a significant impact.


For an extended time, our family has been learning and growing and being uncomfortably twisted and molded by living in this land that so many visit. During these years we’ve learned about our own pride, our own soul poverty, and our preconceived ideas. (Related: We have become cynical and skeptical and things we don’t like too.) We now better recognize the ways in which we have painted this place with a broad brush and forget that individual souls created in the image of God should not be reduced to our small-minded descriptions or looked upon as a project.


As a body of believers called to bring the justice of Jesus and the Kingdom of Heaven to earth it does little good to arrive with anything decided. Each one of us is wonderfully complex and unique and we would do well to remember that is true of everyone, everywhere. Media reports and the State Department don’t have the ability to summarize hearts of people. Churches and mission organizations should not market with the “go save them” narrative.


In our time here, working with and observing different organizations, we’ve had an opportunity to witness many visitors. Perhaps the marketing of short-term trips feeds the problem. When cast as the hero, you are bound to come in with an air of superiority.  That to say, at times we cringe over things said and done.  The cringing comes partially from a place of our own guilt, in knowing we once said and did disrespectful things; in knowing we probably still do sometimes.  Other times we gasp at the disdain some ‘heroes” carry with them.


It is not at all unusual to hear visitors botch something up they are working on and say, “Oh well, it is good enough for Haiti.” I confess that it is those people who I want to follow home with a gallon of ugly colored oil paint and an old tattered brush and walk into their kitchen to show them what my “good enough” looks like at their house.


On occasion our second daughter agrees to translate for teams.  One such medical team was performing minor surgeries.  One of the surgeons brought his fourteen-year-old son on the trip.  The son observed the surgeries and occasionally held a tool or handed his father something.  At one point in the week the father asked his son if he would like to do a spinal-block.  The Doctor stood nearby as his son performed the block.


I am certain the doctor didn’t necessarily mean harm, but when a well-trained, perfectly able physician allows his fourteen year old to stick a needle in someone’s back it says,  “This is good enough for a Haitian”.  As my daughter told me this story I wondered if the physician would appreciate a rookie shoving a needle in his child’s back.


The truth of the matter is this, somewhere along the line we all became convinced that we are a big deal arriving to a place or a people that need us.  Therefore, anything we do is better than nothing, right? (That doesn’t sound like Jesus to me.) This superiority leads us to think, and even say, “Well, it is good enough for them.”  Casting ourselves as the fixers and heroes and “them” as the project is troubling on many levels.


If we want to let the river of His justice flow through us, we have to arrive aware of how prone to superiority we are, how prejudiced we are. We must examine our motivation and presuppositions in the light.  What window am I looking through when I look at others?  What window am I seeing myself through? I know my tendency is to think I am needed. It is a difficult but necessary exercise to continually spend time asking Jesus to mercifully guide us as we attempt to walk with people in wisdom and humility.


God is not made manifest in our ability to “fix” or “heal” or “solve” anything.  He has not cast us as the heroes. He is made manifest in our humility and in our own need to receive healing.  When I can see my own weakness and pride and my need for grace and healing I am left in a position of having nothing to offer …


And you know what?

When I have nothing to offer, Jesus shows up.

Tara tries hard to learn life’s lessons the first time but usually doesn’t.  She is mom to a rambunctious crew of kids and is learning and working in the area of women’s health/midwifery in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She writes at www.livesayhaiti.com

For more in the War Photographer series, click here.

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29 thoughts on “War Photographer: Tara Livesay

  1. […] my friend Sarah Bessey shared a link to a guest post by Tara Livesay over at D.L. Mayfield’s blog. In the post Tara Livesay talks about her life in Haiti and her concern about visitors who come […]

  2. even in my own culture it’s taking a long time of ‘unlearning’ to not feel like people need “help” from me. but you are so right, “When I have nothing to offer, Jesus shows up.” thanks for this. love what you do. -b

  3. Becca says:

    Love this. Their hearts, their own struggles and the things that make them cringe. I feel like I have learned and continue to learn many of the same lessons in my neighborhood (in Atlanta) . . . Anyways, thanks for sharing!

  4. Ed Cyzewski says:

    Thank you for this challenge. I’ve had a similar internal dialogue when we prepare food for our community center. Once night I completely botched the recipe and brought a terrible meal. It crossed my mind that at least it was something to eat, but as I walked over, I sensed God telling me, “You need to put this first.” I wouldn’t give myself a lousy meal… why should I give one to my neighbors?

  5. Great post. Ironically, I’m going to be moving to China long-term as a missionary, and I struggle with the idea that I’m not supposed to be a missionary because I DON’T see it like “I’m going over there to help those poor people.” I need China more than China needs me, and I’ve learned so much from my previous trips there and from my friendships with Chinese people. I’ve had to depend on my Chinese friends, and they’ve been so generous and awesome… it would be crazy to think I have all the answers and I’m going to save everybody. I’m not bringing Jesus to China- Jesus has been there for thousands of years before I learned to say “ni hao.”

    And I wrote this post a few weeks ago, about related things: 4 Reasons I Can’t Be A Missionary

  6. I wish everyone would be required to read this before they embark on any kind of missions work. Well done Tara.

  7. nv says:

    Love the article and totally agree, with one exception:
    “when a well-trained, perfectly able physician allows his fourteen year old to stick a needle in someone’s back it says, “This is good enough for a Haitian”

    “It” doesn’t say anything. It is not fair to infer this doctor’s intentions by his actions, just as it is not fair to try to fit Haitians into one’s preconceived ideas. The quote above implies that this physician holds the life of a Haitian at lesser value than others. That is quite a serious conclusion to infer from a second-hand story about one action performed by someone you’ve never met who in all likelihood was just doing something that he does every day.

    I understand the gist of the story and the “good enough for Haiti” part (which I’ve witnessed first hand, to my frustration as well), but we all need to be careful not to elevate ourselves above others just because of where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. I’ve seen the pride and experience of long-term workers as an excuse to judge others far too often, and its just not right.

    • We all need to be upfront about our own hang-ups, of course, but one can definitely infer from the doctor’s actions that he allowed something to happen in Haiti that would not be permissible in the U.S. Perhaps he would be fine with it in America (if there weren’t rules and regulations to prevent a child from performing intense medical procedures)–but the bigger question I think is what sort of value did his decision place on the Haitian patient?

      Good intentions aside, I think this piece is primarily about how we (hopefully) unwittingly devalue people and places that we don’t understand.

      • nv says:

        What value his actions placed on that patient is unknowable to us, especially when viewed from the lens of someone who is not medically trained, and it is unfair to make a declarative about his intentions and then pass judgement on him.

        That said, I do greatly respect your service and experience and I identify strongly with the theme of this piece. Amen to the last paragraph.

  8. Tara says:

    NV –
    Maybe you’re right (that this is unfair) but I did start the paragraph with “I’m sure the doctor didn’t necessarily mean harm”. Curious though, what sort of medical training (and lens) would I be required to have in order to say that choosing a 14 year old over the trained and experienced professional is not giving of your very best?

    • nv says:

      It really would require an understanding of the reproducibility and safety of this procedure when supervised by a professional, and I would not expect everyone to understand that. As a medical student (aha) I performed a bone marrow biopsy and a lumbar puncture for the first time on a teenage patient with two Hem/Onc physicians supervising, and I was anything but trained and experienced. I had never done anything even close to that before. Does that mean that I as well as the two physicians present held that child’s life at a lesser value than their other patients? Opinions may differ as to whether this is “the best for the patient” but I just think the assumption that this doctor devalues Haitian people for this one action is quite a leap.

      • Tara says:

        Hmm. Perhaps you are right.

      • Jen Halverson says:

        I am a peds EM physician who has spend lots of time training in the U.S. and practicing in both the U.S. and in Haiti. In my opinion, there is NO comparison between the 14 year old son of a physician doing a procedure on a patient in Haiti and a 24+ year old medical student doing a procedure on a patient in the U.S. (or any country). The former example is absolutely against any and all medical ethical codes that I’m aware of (and would never be allowed in the U.S.), while the latter is a time-honored and practiced part of medical training in the U.S. There are certainly ethical issues to consider when it comes to the best way to supervise and train medical students, residents, and fellows in the U.S. (i.e. do patients in urban county hospitals have procedures performed more often by trainees, and if so, do their outcomes differ, who should supervise, when supervision should be required, etc). But letting a 14 year old perform any invasive medical procedure in Haiti is unethical, and the boy’s father never should have allowed it to happen. No exceptions.

      • Sarah says:

        I was quite shocked to read about the U.S. doctor who let his 14-year-old son do the procedure on the Haitian patient. What consequences would have the doctor faced if he had let his son do this to a patient in the USA? Wouldn’t he have lost his license? Why do patients in Haiti not deserve the same protection that patients in the USA do?

  9. I think it’s easy to become frustrated with people who don’t know better when you do. I am learning this lesson too. I have been going to Haiti for years and now am heavily involved in Haiti Adoptions. It is so easy for me to get frustrated with some of the crazy expectations people have when it comes to their adoptions but I have to remember that these people are only coming with the little bit of knowledge they have and usually, no prior experience. I feel like my job is to help educate these adoptive parents and/or teams that I take to Haiti and to do it in love and with patience. Seems like a lot of missionaries who have been in the trenches have a hard time going back to the beginning when they didn’t know better and they did things they now get so upset about.

    It would have been a little more encouraging to hear something positive they’ve seen or experienced with teams on a mission trip to show that it can be done right but instead I read and feel like all these good-intentioned people are just screwing it all up and should just stay home…. she makes those who are going seem very insignificant as if they shouldn’t be there. This line “…they are also being told that in one or two weeks they might be able to make a significant impact.” implies that going for one or two weeks does not make a significant impact. I definitely don’t agree with that. These impacts DO happen and on both sides of the spectrum – those going and those in Haiti.

    When I was 19 I flew to Haiti alone to take supplies to a friend. The day before I left someone gave me some formula to take. My friend didn’t have any babies but I was sure someone could use it so I packed it. Days later I was handed a 9 month old in fetal position that weighed less than 10lbs. The dr. told us he needed some very specific formula to survive and sadly said she’d never been able to find it in Haiti before…. it was the formula I had packed. I cared for him for the next week and have watched him grow in a young teenager. Maybe not significant for the country as a whole but for him, it was his life… I think that trip was pretty significant.

  10. lydiamlee says:

    Hi, I’m Lydia Lee of Iowa. I’m 11 and I am a blogger. I love Haiti!! I don’t think of Haitians as mission projects. I’m kind of THEIR mission project. 🙂 Awesome post.

  11. I have wondered sometimes, with all the souls wanting to save soul, if it could sometimes be twisted out of shape. Twisted to a place to boast up the head, instead of bend low the knee.

    Bless you, Thank you!

  12. jdukeslee says:

    Thoughtful, needful words. No, we are not the heroes. When we take our children to Haiti (one of them commenting just above me) we emphasize that the Haitian people are not our charity projects, but our friends. We read your post together this morning, and we are grateful for how you’ve put our thoughts to words in such a compelling way.

  13. Tara says:

    I don’t have a hard time going back to the beginning at all, Shasta Grimes. I regret that you feel defenisve reading this, and as a matter of fact this (post) is as much of an indictment of my attitude as it is of anyone else.

    Maybe you missed this:
    “The cringing comes partially from a place of our own guilt, in knowing we once said and did disrespectful things; in knowing we probably still do sometimes.”

    “When I can see my own weakness and pride and my need for grace and healing I am left in a position of having nothing to offer …”

  14. Tara says:

    lydiamlee —
    Me too!!! Material poverty is one type of poverty, living here as taught me a lot about OTHER types of poverty, including that of my own soul. Thanks to you and your Mama for not hearing this as a lecture only intended for you — I write most of what I write to remind ME. 🙂

    (P.S. – I have a daughter named Lydia too.)

  15. Keri Hurley says:

    Thankyou for this! I really do believe that most Christians go on mission trips because they have a heart for the things of God. Many of us end up with a false pride that WE made a difference. Have to be so careful of that in all areas of Christian Service. Thankful for you and the way you write..

  16. Keri Hurley says:

    One more thing-We have a dear friend from Haiti who has shared with us her life there.Wow..It has made my 20 yr.old daughter want to go there and pour her life into helping with a sincere heart. She wants to help people learn to read. The problem..our friend says in her area..They were taught to hate white people. She is a Christian now and says that there is much prejudice.

  17. Caryl dukes says:

    This really speaks to me…we are NOT heroes and if I ever get the opportunity to go to Haiti..I want to make them the Hero..them the teacher..I will learn from them..Beautiful writing,Tara..Thank You ..Thank YOu

  18. […] Tara Livesay writes a beautiful post about missions and I want to take a minute to share some thoughts on what she writes. If you have time, go and read her post, it’s worth your time. https://dlmayfield.wordpress.com/2013/04/04/war-photographer-tara-livesay/ […]

  19. […] we met. We were thinking big. But the thing is, while at times we unknowingly got involved in an unhealthy savior complex, our hearts were full of genuine care for other human beings, and we wanted more than anything else […]


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