War Photographer: Sarah Bessey

Whenever I just want to be done with the internets for good, Sarah Bessey is what changes my mind. She has been doing her own thing in her corner for a long time, and her writing is beautiful, aching, honest, and more poetry than prose. She is supremely talented at both being an advocate AND creating safe spaces for dialogue–all the while moving you to tears. I am more than honored that she is sharing in this space today. What she writes here is very near and dear to my heart, and is a game changer for describing how we ought not use others for our own purposes. Please check out her gorgeous blog (and get ready for her book, which i can’t wait to get my greedy little hands on). 




In which I am (not much of) a war photographer

It’s been more than ten years since I was introduced the terminology of “missional church.” Hey, what do you know? we are meant to live out the Gospel in our daily, walking-around lives, as missionaries in each and every context. Amazing, right?

As a refugee from the mega-church movement of modern church life and fame-seeking Christian celebrity marketing, the missional living conversation was a timely lifeboat for my journey. I loved Jesus, I struggled with the circus, and this was a call out of a churchy-ghetto, and into the real world with a message of Love. Now my life, even here in a prosperous corner of Canada, is a missionary life, a life of embodying God’s hope and good news. Justice and mercy, hope and goodness, love and peace, are desperately needed. My friends were not going to church and were suspicious (even hostile) of labels like “evangelical” but I was going to my friends, and so the idea of missional living made sense in my context.

I was reading books from seminary academics and interacting with emerging church thinkers and theorists. But it all felt rather like an ivory tower to me, divorced from real-life application and living out. I often thought to myself, well, that sounds great but what does it mean in my real life?! At the time, there weren’t a lot of bloggers writing about missional living (well, in those days there weren’t so many bloggers, period), story-telling hadn’t become the saturated scapegoat medium of Christian writers, and the terms “ordinary radical” and “missional” hadn’t jumped the Christian publishing shark.

So I decided to start writing about how this whole “missional thing” actually looked in my life, right here, in Vancouver. I was full of ideas – I would write stories about my interactions with my neighbours! with my co-workers! with my friends! with strangers at the park! with the poor and marginalised in my city! I would be the “voice on the ground” from the front-lines of this whole missional life, these stories would be valuable and needed. I could share real-life conversations with real-life people. Church people would learn from my arguments disguised as stories. I had an agenda for justice! and maybe I could be, like, the VOICE of missional living in real life! People would learn and understand how to actually apply the theories now!


Clearly, I had missed the point. But I wrote a few posts over the period of a year or so. Then I stopped writing those stories. I ended up deleting every single post.

The very nature of arguments require simplification. When we are arguing, we go to our base lines. We turn people into props, interactions to proving grounds, theology into theories, because we have a point to prove. We make arguments for good reasons – I have no doubt about that.  And arguments have a place, perhaps. We have an end game in mind: we want to raise money, we want to do good, we want to change the world, we want to make a difference, vivé la revolution of love! But agendas turn our lives into arguments and proof-points, instead of invitation.

Arguments and agendas require simplicity. Relationships make room for complexity and nuance.

Arguments and agendas require a clear story arc: setting, conflict, climax, resolution. Relationships allow for ebb and flow, for intimacy and redemption, for non-sexy work of showing up over the years, for the working out of God’s goodness already worked in. How does it glorify God or embody the Kingdom of God to use people as props “for the greater good.”

I deleted those essays because the more enmeshed I became in the actual “living” part of the missional living theories, the more I realised one thing: these are my friends. These are my neighbours. These are my co-workers. I loved them. And when I loved them, I didn’t want to use them as props anymore.

I hadn’t written anything terrible, anything revealing. But I had written about them as if they were props, I had used them to make an argument. In my rush to tell stories about missional living, I had dehumanized my friends and my neighbours.

Talk about missing the point of the Gospel.

I remember the day someone found out what I had done. She came across my blog by chance. She was devastated by my “stories” from the “front-lines” recounting our conversations. Understandably, she felt used and she felt betrayed by me. And she has never forgiven me. I lost a friend. I still can’t think about this without a deep sense of guilt and grief. I was absolutely in the wrong.

All of these things were in my mind when I was invited to join the Help One Now blogger trip to Haiti last year. Too often, we bloggers and writers use the excuse of storytelling to advance our own agendas and arguments. That feels false to me, both as a writer and as a follower of Jesus. We can all tell the difference between a real story and a creaking morality tale: we can all tell the difference between a friendship of mutuality and a clumsy attempt at following the agenda. There really isn’t a way to make someone feel loved and valued while simultaneously using them as a prop for a purpose.

I was afraid of extreme poverty, afraid of leaving my family, but mostly I was afraid of screwing up and hurting someone in my heart to do some good. It seemed easier to do nothing, than to risk damaging the dignity of Haitians. Yet I felt very clearly and strongly that God had wanted me to do this thing. So I went but I went in “fear and trembling” with a tremendous desire to honour Haiti, and a cautious sense of calling. I was committed to people, not arguments, even for a good cause. I wanted to learn from them. I knew the likelihood of my return to Haiti was small but that didn’t give me an excuse, not anymore. Even if my new friends in Haiti would never read my blog, even if they never saw a picture I took, even if they never heard a speech I gave on their behalf, I needed to write and blog and talk about them like they were sitting right here in the front row.

No more two-faced storytelling for the purposes of argument. That excuse won’t fly anymore.

I don’t know if I did a good job. Only the people of Haiti can tell me that. But I tried and I wrestle even now with relating these stories because aren’t I doing this very thing again? I don’t know. I tried to figure out how to do some good and even build a school from the standpoint of relationship instead of argument and agendas. I’ve learned by now that God is just as much concerned with the means as the end.

Even now, six months later, when I write about Haiti, or I write about Mercy Ministries of Canada, and particularly when I write about my own small life here in British Columbia, I wonder: relationship or argument? It’s a cheap use of my stories – let alone my friends or my family –  for the purposes of arguments. These are lives, not theories; souls, not vehicles for setting, conflict, climax, and tidy resolutions. I don’t always get it right. I make apologies often.

I want to be faithful to nuance and complexity, to the light and the shadows, in both relationships and story-telling. I am still learning to embrace wandering truth in favour of crisp arguments. I want to make it my ambition, as Paul admonished the church in Thessalonica, to live a quiet life of profound consequence, focused on embodying God’s kingdom way of life here and now and loving others well.

Because the very nature of missional living is indeed the embodiment of the Gospel. And the Gospel is good news, the news that God is for us and God is with us and God is Love and Life. So our living out of the mission needs to reflect the heart of our Sender: it needs to look like respect, like secret-keeping, like relationship instead of arguments, to even begin to hint at the vast love and affection of our Father towards us.



Sarah Bessey 300x200Sarah Bessey is a writer and an award-winning blogger (www.sarahbessey.com). She lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia with her husband, Brian, and their three tines, Anne, Joseph, and Evelynn. Her first book Jesus Feminist will be published by Howard Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) in 2013. Sarah is an editor at A Deeper Story (www.deeperstory.com), and a contributor at SheLoves Magazine (www.shelovesmagazine.com). She is a happy clappy Jesus lover, a joyful subversive, a voracious reader, an unrepentant hashtag abuser, and a social justice wannabe.


(psssst, Sarah’s book can be pre-ordered here. Yay!)





The War Photographer series seeks to ask and somewhat answer questions of representation. How we go about sharing stories that aren’t our own–specifically the hard stories? How do we put a spotlight on some of the forgotten stories of our age while still giving dignity and respect to the subjects?

For more in the series, please click here.


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31 thoughts on “War Photographer: Sarah Bessey

  1. […] Read the rest of this essay over at D.L. Mayfield’s site, “Living in the Upside Down Kingdom.” […]

  2. This is such a wise and gracious post. Thank you.

    Also: my five-year-old is sitting on my lap as I read this. When I scrolled down to where your picture is, she said, “Oooh! It’s a pretty girl!” 🙂

  3. Becca says:

    I love this. And it’s exactly why I struggle so much with how to write and what what to talk about when I describe our life in inner-city Atlanta. I dont want to be a voice for the kids and families we work with and love so much as I want to help them find their own voice. Thank you for sharing!!

  4. Sarah, I absolutely can relate to what you are sharing here. In the last town we lived in, I developed a friendship with a woman and our dynamic seemed to exemplify and embody everything I was learning about helping without hurting. And I was proud. And I wanted to tell the story of it all. But like you, I realized this was my FRIEND, not a straw character, a real human being.

    Storytelling, when done well and with dignity, is something always to approach with fear and trembling. Such beautiful insights from you, friend.

  5. We can all tell the difference between a real story and a creaking morality tale: we can all tell the difference between a friendship of mutuality and a clumsy attempt at following the agenda.

    taking this with me. thank you for pointing us toward Love, Sarah.

  6. katybethty says:

    Wow. Just wow. Maybe a new favorite…hits a bit too close to home…

  7. Tanya Marlow says:

    Oo – yes – and ouch.

    This post was so indepth and thoughtful that it deserves a considerably better response than that – but that’s all I have the energy for, so take it as shorthand 🙂

  8. Ed Cyzewski says:

    This put into words something that I’ve sensed but couldn’t articulate. Especially when we are “in process” with our relationships, I feel like it is darn near impossible to write about them because I don’t want to step back and objectify it. Thank you for this. and thank you for being brave enough to step out on behalf of Haiti and to work through what it looks like to tell a story with respect.

  9. “we can all tell the difference between a friendship of mutuality and a clumsy attempt at following the agenda”

    yes. i love this. thank you.

  10. I appreciate your honesty about the struggle to tell stories without objectifying people. It helps to know that this has been a process for you. I really do think you have done a good job telling the Haiti stories. Still, I appreciate your ongoing alertness, ” that God is just as much concerned with the means as the end.”

  11. Melissa says:

    This is so good.

    I remember the first time I recognized myself in a former pastor’s blog post, and I couldn’t even articulate why it wounded me so deeply. It was a post about “how to tell when someone is leaving your church,” and he had never spoken to ME about any of the things involved, and it was an incredibly one-sided representation. Another time he “reviewed” (= attacked) a book I’d given him to read without ever speaking to ME about it. It was a cheap shot and a self-congratulatory one that completely removed him from any culpability or responsibility for our (former) relationship.

    Too often bloggers think their blogs operate in a vacuum, or in an accountability-free space. I am glad that there are some, like you, who are trying to change that.

  12. Erika says:

    This is so timely for me. While I hadn’t attached the label “missional living” to my musings, I’ve spent the last couple days thinking about these things. I’m a writer, to my core, a storyteller, and I long to tell people’s stories. But I’m struggling with how to do that, how to honor them, not use them. It is a delicate balance. This is beautiful and wise, and I am glad to know I’m not alone in working to understand this balance.

  13. Megan says:

    But aren’t you using your former friend as a prop again, here? Or is it okay when it elevates others and deprecates us (the bloggers)? I only ask because this is something I, too, struggle with, especially after a recent post I wrote where a friend injured me. The experience provoked some serious inner thoughts, which is where my blog often flows from and it’s how I process life. But it obviously hurt my friend because she stopped speaking to me. I published that piece with much prayer and like you said, “with fear and trembling.” But I’m still left scratching my head and wondering if writing it was wrong.

    So, what do we do? Stick to sharing recipes? Warn all of our family and friends that they might be the target of our next blog post?

    • Melissa says:

      I don’t think it’s crazy to ask permission of anyone you’re planning to write about before you publish it.

      • Megan says:

        I agree, and in hindsight, as a courtesy, maybe I should’ve given my friend a heads-up. I realize, too, that with any conflict, there are always two viewpoints. And both are usually valid.

      • I have been praying about this a lot recently. The solution that I felt The Lord had given me was simply to ask permission before sharing or dont share it. God so gently reminded me how much He loves each person. Thank you for this lovely post Sarah! Really blessed me today!

  14. So agree with this. When I started blogging I wanted to share my “real-life missional stories too”, and quickly realised that my friends are real-life people with real-life feelings who do not wish to feature as real-life examples.
    But I wonder how people (other Christians) can catch a glimpse of what it looks like to live missionally without examples of these real-life stories.. do you have any thoughts on how we do this?

    • Joanna says:

      Anna asked just what I wanted to ask! This posted resonated with me. I would actually love to blog far more than I do but so much of what I think about is bound up with being the mother of three young adults. I ‘write’ entire posts in my head about the lessons I am learning from them, especially now they are beginning to leave home. I am a writer and I feel a need to share things like that. But I can’t and I wouldn’t dream of it – how could I; I don’t have any rights over their stories.

  15. katybeth says:

    Reblogged this on One in Seven Billion and commented:
    In light of my last post, I feel like on an even deeper level, this puts into words what is so heavy on my heart. This is a lot to chew on, but my heart aches at the ways in which I have cheapened my past friendships and relationships by degrading them to objects to fit an agenda, rather than protecting them as something sacred and beautiful. Please God may I never do this to my heart or the heart of another again…ever…I beg you for grace in this. Amen.

  16. Sometimes I think it seems as if we idolize the idea of “story”. I often feel a lack of connection when I read stories (I know, that’s the exact opposite of most of the blogosphere, right?) and I like reading informational/educational/philosophical musings more.

  17. I learned this the hard way in a personal relationship as well, where I used a snippet of a complex and nuanced conversation, out of context to make a point. And it was funny. Ha ha! Sadly, the relationship in real life is lost. I didn’t realize I was doing it, honestly, until I had already hit publish. I got into a writerly place in my head, and I just didn’t consider the consequences. But now I have learned that.

    It is right to ask if we are doing this in our larger, global inter-community relationships as well. I have very little insight on that, but am glad to observe your process and ask the question of myself.

  18. […] In Which I Am Not Much of a War Photographer […]

  19. weakestreed says:

    Excellent! Thank you for articulating this so well. Wisdom received. 🙂

  20. What a great article. For all these reasons, I usually use myself as my own biggest prop, meaning that I try to break myself down and apart before God rather than pick apart others. And if I do write about others, I try to be careful to only do so after I have asked them and told them what the post would be about. In fact, I go so far as to ask my husband to read any post I put up about our small children so that they have an advocate and I won’t accidentally tread somewhere I didn’t mean to tread. And I totally agree that we should bring an end to “two-faced storytelling” – but I think that maybe stories are always arguments. Arguments for beauty or truth or against falsehood and ugliness. Arguments for why we create and how we learn through our mistakes. And I’m not sure what to do with that. We, or at least I, write because we/I have something to say – something I believe in deeply and want to share. If you feel passion that deeply, how can you not argue it – especially when you experience it, learn about it, through the stories of your lives which will always (hopefully) be driven by relationships? Nonetheless, I think you dealt with the tension beautifully and I very much like the litmus test you apply as a starting point for evaluating any piece – relationship or argument? Thanks as always for another wonderful post.

  21. ro elliott says:

    It’s like you have been inside my head and heart….scattered thoughts that I could not articulate ….wel done!

  22. Great thoughts here. As another commenter mentioned, I think the sensitive reader can detect a difference in sharing a story (that includes the writer) vs. using another person as a prop. Of course I struggle with all of this, too. But sometimes these stories are the gifts we have been given to share, and it’s our responsibility to share them with dignity and sensitivity. I have learned from and been encouraged by the stories of others (and THEIR stories of others) so the idea of everyone deleting those words makes my heart break a little. Thanks for the food for thought!

  23. […] I tend to keep my love of these women and their excellent writing to myself. However, when I read this post by Sarah Bessey, I thought it was time to share my love of Sarah Bessey with you […]

  24. thoughtful and true, Sarah. thank you.

  25. […] right about the time I was having these realizations about “war photographers” that I eventually wrote about for D.L Mayfield, I was having very similar thoughts about my own […]


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