Authentic Mobility: Guest Post by Rachel Pieh Jones

*****Quick plug: I wrote something on the Trayvon Martin case for Out of Ur. You can find that article here.******



Rachel Pieh Jones has shared her astounding thoughts in this space before, and I was thrilled when she agreed to tackle this subject. Her post resonated so much with me, because I too find myself in so many seemingly contradictory spaces–and I am learning to love them all. Rachel continually inspires me with her commitment to celebrating her life (while not white-washing it either). I call her the “Katherine Boo” of Djibouti, since this is one lady who has definitely earned her facts. If you are anything like me (and even if you aren’t) I am positive you will find this piece to be both relatable and encouraging. 



Authentic Mobility: Guest Post by Rachel Pieh Jones

I haven’t thought much about downward mobility but I have thought a lot about moving toward need.

Not just moving toward need but moving toward need and bringing comfort, attention, and affection. Bringing Jesus, dignity, and relationship. And not just bringing these things to deliver, but bearing them in my skin and in my soul and receiving them back.

I don’t view need in purely economic terms, but also in community and spiritual terms. A wealthy, childless widow. A toddler begging on the street corner. A man searching for peace in Islam, then Buddhism, then pot. My own vulnerability and loneliness.

I spent last Wednesday with two other expatriates in a Djiboutian village. We visited fifteen members of the Girls Run 2 club I helped to start in 2008. Eighteen of us, plus more than a dozen neighborhood children, sat in an unlit cement room, and talked about running and school and family responsibilities.

Some of the girls have electricity, none have running water. Some have at least one permanent structure to call part of their home, some have walls made of sticks and flattened powdered milk cans and t-shirts. All of them are required by club rules to be in school. Most of them come from large families where the emphasis is on survival and hard labor – hauling water, scrubbing clothes, herding sheep, walking four miles to school, there is little time for affection or personal attention.

After all the girls arrived, after we kissed hands and cheeks, and after I had asked each of them about their running events and best times, about their dreams for their future, their favorite subjects in school, and what their mothers thought about them running, we walked to the car.

The Land Cruiser was heavy with thirty twenty-pound boxes of rice, with additional nutrients, from Feed My Starving Children. Each member of the club received one box and the extra were left at the stadium for when they needed more.

Then I drove the two hours home to Djibouti City and read an email about my upcoming family reunion this Christmas in Disney World.

And I cried.

I cried for the confusion and the contradiction in it. I cried for the joy I felt sitting in the dark room with the running team and for the joy I felt thinking about Christmas with my entire family, including a newly adopted niece I have never met. I wept for the joy in the conversation with the other expats in the car on the drive, about prayer and comfort and brokenness and Jesus.

I need God to show me how to live in this life of authentic engagement with girls in the depths of poverty, girls with strength and dignity, girls who crave and thrive on physical touch and individual attention, and at the same time how to live in a life of Land Cruisers and Disney World with my beloved family.

I think the way to live this life is to live like Jesus, to be always on the move toward need. My own and others’.

The girls in that village needed food. But they also needed to talk about school and their training. They needed to be told they are precious. They needed to hold my hand while they talked about mentally unstable fathers and dead babies. I needed to hear them laugh and I needed to watch them care for their siblings and their parents and each other. I needed to hear them defend their fellow runner who has never been to school before and can’t write her own name yet. I needed to know their names and their unique stories, unique personalities. And so we moved toward one another, meeting in our need-places.

My family needs to be together. We have said goodbye and been separated so many times over the years. My parents need to draw their four children from the four corners of the earth to celebrate who we are and to delight in each other for a week. I need to hold my new niece and hear my nephew explain Lacrosse to this clueless aunt. I need to hear how God is moving in my brother. I need to watch my children tackle their grandparents. And so we move toward one another, meeting in our need-places.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to go to Disney World with my family. I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to sit in the cement room with the team. And I would be lying if I hid one side of this life from the other, that feels disingenuous. But this, this moving toward need with the confused-crying and the releasing-joy of it, feels like authenticity.

It feels like authentic mobility. Not necessarily downward or upward, possibly both. I move both ways in my Djibouti life and while it feels like a split down my middle some days, on most days it feels true and honest.

Sometimes moving toward need means bringing rice to hungry families and accepting a chilled Coke from them. Sometimes it means going to Disney World and accepting the gift of family. Sometimes it means bringing my own brokenness into the conversation and accepting the step of someone moving toward me, bearing Jesus in the soul and in the skin.




downward1Doesn’t she just look like the coolest/nicest War Photographer ever? Rachel can be found here: Blog: Djibouti Jones, Twitter: @RachelPiehJones, Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones







For more in the Downward Mobility series, click here.

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20 thoughts on “Authentic Mobility: Guest Post by Rachel Pieh Jones

  1. I am in the US right now and also live in East Africa. I wish I had read this a couple weeks ago. The adjustment to the US is hard and yet I do embrace the joy of my life here. Yet my home is not the US for now. The words that ring with me, ‘move toward the need’! My college kids have needs to be addressed now. Our work back ‘home does to!

  2. ANNIE says:

    Dang. This is beautiful.

  3. Lindsay says:

    The two contrasting experiences are both representative of who you are called to be in order to love others well. I am thrilled that you have found that singularity of call while remaining “mobile”. I hope the feeling of honesty and truth in it to also means peace. It sounds like what Paul talked about when he spoke of “becoming all things to all people.” Personally, I’m encouraged to hear someone talking about what it feels like to do this, confusion and all. Thanks, Rachel.

  4. Thanks Lindsay – yes, most of the time there is a peace. Though I do sometimes still struggle with guilt/inadequacy. Trying to live in between such vastly different worlds often leads to tears too, just from the overwhelming pain and beauty of it, like I wrote. I am always learning to do both better and to let go of more of myself. Annie Dillard writes about the ‘boulder of self’ that blocks the way and I’m learning to roll that boulder out of the way and be, like you said, all things to all people.

  5. idelette says:

    Beautiful, Rachel. I appreciate your honesty and I can relate in an upside down sort of way. Next year the plan is to celebrate my parents’ 50th anniversary with my brother, SIL and niece (that I hadn’t seen in more than two years), in France. Also: My visits to South Africa usually looks very different from visits to Uganda or Burundi, for example. I love how you talk about leaning into the need. How do we hold all of our worlds? I haven’t figured it out yet, but I appreciate that we are trying to make sense of it. Thank you for your honesty and Love.

  6. […] Today I am posting at D.L. Mayfield’s blog in her series on Downward Mobility. It is an honor to again be part of her series. Amazing how this woman I have never met in person can write things that change the way I think and live and can write things that I can’t stop thinking about. […]

  7. Debbie says:

    Because of the flood and now outreach season our team has not been able to go into Mozambique. I’m here in South Africa living a life that is not much different from life in the states. I only have pictures to remind me of the sand, the children and the ladies I teach. I know, as soon as the Lord allows for me to cross that border once again, I will have that unexplainable feeling of being at home. I can’t wait for that moment but for now I post on Facebook: Who is George Zimmerman, what did he do and why all the uproar?

  8. mpieh says:

    Rachel, as usual, beautiful…thank you! And it’s so cool that I read this TODAY…the same day I was discussing The Monks of Tibhirine with my pastor. Are you familiar with their story…the French monks that lived among Muslims in Algeria, and were martyred in 1996? An award-winning movie was made about them a few years back: Of Gods and Men…I highly recommend it. These monks beautifully and humbly responded to the needs of their neighbors…and were lovingly accepted and ministered to BY those neighbors. I think you’d enjoy reading this essay I stumbled across today:{A260BE3B-534B-412F-8342-D49DD3A5CD79}.

    So many more thoughts, questions, and things I’d like to share in response to what you wrote…but it’s really late and we’re going dipnetting in the morning…lots of salmon to be caught! We’ll have to add this topic to the list of things we’ll talk about when we have that cup of coffee someday!! 🙂

  9. fiona lynne says:

    Thank you for writing about this tension, the confused tears. I can relate to that. The idea of “moving toward the need” is such a helpful guide, a compass by which to orient ourselves each day. It’s a tangible concept to hold on to in the midst of the figuring-it-all-out…

    • Glad I’m not the only one with those confused tears. They seem to be coming more frequently lately as I wrestle with these things. I suppose that is a good thing.

    • Marilyn says:

      I agree with this. I read the post yesterday – then again today. And authentic is what shouts out at me. I think about this a lot. Even with downward mobility – can one who chooses downward mobility decide against it at any time and move up again? And if so, does that negate the experience of connection and empathy with those who surround us who cannot move up but are stuck in ‘downward’? We knew a family in Cairo that lived in a slum and they were dynamic amazing speakers. But they were also proud that their kids had lice and they had bedbugs and their kids could swear in Arabic making the hard-hearted cringe. They thought getting amoebic dysentery was a way of empathizing and I find that difficult – not just from a spiritual perspective, but a public health nurse perspective. But I’m all over the map with this comment and I apologize. What I love is the prayer for authenticity. I work with the “underserved” (and while I hate that term it’s the one we have to use to get grant funding) ie those who are marginalized, don’t have health insurance, are least likely to get to a hospital or clinic. I realized a couple of years ago that while I had the choice to have a mammogram in a beautiful, spa-like setting, the only option we had for many of these women was an old van that would go from place to place. On the one hand it was a wonderful option because it provided screening. On the other hand I felt like I needed to be able to speak first hand about the van and be able to empathize with the experience so I started getting mammograms in the van. It sounds so dumb and so little – but it helped so much in being able to encourage people and speak to what it was like. “Moving towards need” however big or small. Sorry for my wandering with this!

      • I love that you did that Marilyn – entering the experience of the people you’re working alongside/with will make you better at the job and better able to relate. Just because we have access to ‘luxuries’ doesn’t necessarily mean we should use them, right? I just saw a photo today of the Pope’s car – a Ford Focus instead of something fancy.

        Also, I have to say that I am NOT happy or proud about the inevitable lice or cockroach infestations. Jesus never said that stuff is what makes a person loving or a servant. Refined perhaps, but not innately holy. I love these words by Katherine boo: we need to ‘avoid the conceit that poverty is ennobling.’

  10. This is a great piece of encouragement, Rachel. It seems many of us live in the tension of navigating Western world & Jesus’ calling. Some days, to me, it feels as if the word prosperity needs to be redefined, as Westerners are so much about academics and building on scriptural truth statements. Then again, what is a definition without love in action?

    As Paul’s thorn was not taken away, it also seems we have to live our calling, navigating the tension of cultures, words and what love really means in the moment of where we are and who we are with. I’ve been pondering in my own life how deep & wide I really am for Jesus.

  11. I love this reframing of “authentic mobility.” I’ve always struggled with the term “downward mobility.” First, because it seems to assume that the life of the poor or those in need is somehow less-than. Less-beautiful. Less than ideal. Less good, etc. It assumes a sort of martyrdom from the downwardly mobile person to live among the “downward.” But this, this “authentic mobility” makes sense to me. My husband and I live in a struggling urban neighborhood–it’s where we felt the need was. But sometimes I need to go out to the country where I grew up and soak up the corn fields and the sunsets and mom’s cooking. I’ve always felt a little guilty about this tension. About the ability to go on vacations when so many of my neighbors are struggling just to get by. But this reframing around need, even our own!, helps me see this differently. I agree that we can’t fragment these pieces of ourselves. I’m still learning how to live with that tension–to rest there–and to not hide different parts of life from others.

    • Honestly (and I know D.L. had heard feedback on this already) I also struggled with the term downward mobility. I wondered, ‘in comparison to whom?’ and the term seems to exclude those who are more or already ‘down.’ I understand the sentiment behind it though and find it helpful in some ways. But as I wrestled with my own ups and downs, this piece is what emerged. I appreciate hearing your feedback Courtney. Thanks to D.L. too, for hosting this series and fostering these kinds of discussions, so important.


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