Category Archives: War Photographers

A piece of the body torn out by the roots




photo by Walker Evans. Please go look at all of his gorgeous photographs right now.

photo by Walker Evans. Please go look at all of his gorgeous photographs right now.


Sorry I have nothing to write about. Life is extremely loud and incredibly private, etc etc.


However, I have been thinking about Artists, Experts, Poverty, War Photographers, Sentimentality, Detachment, Acceptance, Fame, Privilege, Power, and Money. I have been thinking about all the people I know and the exquisite terror of how beautiful and complicated and made in the image of God they are. And, as always, I have been reading. Here is a long quote I have been mulling over:




“If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite the novelty; critics would murmur  yes, but is it art; and I could trust the majority of you to use it as a parlor game.

A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.

As it is, though, I’ll do what little I can in writing. Only it will be very little. I’m not capable of it; and if I were, you would not go near it at all. For if you did, you would hardly bear to live.

As a matter of fact, nothing I might write could make any difference whatsoever. It would only be a “book” at the best. If it were a safely dangerous one it would be “scientific” or “political” or “revolutionary”. If it were really dangerous it would be called “literature” or “religion” or “mysticism” or “art” and under one such name or another might in time achieve the emasculation of acceptance. If it were dangerous enough to be of any remote use to the human race it would be merely “frivolous” or “pathological” and that would be the end of that. Wiser and more capable men than I shall ever be have put forth their findings before you, findings so rich and so full of anger, serenity, murder, healing, truth, and love that it seems incredible the world were not destroyed and fulfilled in an instant. But you are too much for them: the weak in courage are strong in cunning; and one by one you have absorbed and captured and dishonored, and have distilled of your deliverers the most ruinous of poisons; people hear Beethoven in concert halls, or over a bridge game, or to relax; Cezannes are hung on walls, reproduced, in natural wood frames; van Gogh is the man who cut off his ear and whose yellows have recently become popular in window decoration . . .

However this may be, this is a book about “sharecroppers,” and is written for those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance, and especially for those who can afford the retail price; in the hope that the reader will be edified, and may feel kindly disposed toward any well-thought-out liberal efforts to rectify the unpleasant situation down in the South, and will somewhat better and more guiltily appreciate the next good meal he eats; and in the hope too, that he will recommend this little book to really sympathetic friends, in order that our publishers may at least cover their investment and that some kindly thought may be turned our way, and a little of your money fall to poor little us.”


James Agee, introduction, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men




Your correspondent, has a very bad head cold and needs to go think some more thoughts.





















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i am the beggar of the world


I was at a writing conference over the weekend, the first one I have ever been to. The highlight was meeting up with my friends, my lifeline, my cheering squad, my angel editors–calling them a writing group does not even begin to cut it. I also had the strange sensation of trying to match people up to their online profiles, with varying degrees of success. I knew, even before the conference began, that everyone would be so much more interesting than I could possibly believe. I wandered from session to session, from poet to writer to thinker to theologian. Sometimes I skipped and sat in the grass with good people. By the end, I was overwhelmed in every way.

During the sessions, my mind would sometimes wander. The conference itself was such a small microcosm: dismayingly white, educated, Christian, social media savvy types. I would think about my other life, the one back home. I kept thinking about my students, about the beautiful chaos of my classroom, my friends. As I listened to smart people talk about smart things, hovering between being accessible and literary, I was thinking about cell phones. I was thinking about how every morning I teach, the cell phones always ring, over and over again. I had given up on outlawing them; dozens of times a day I politely yet firmly tell my students to get up and go to the corner of the room to talk, so we can get on with class.

At the conference, I sat and listened to people talking about Novel of Ultimate Concern. My hand wanted to shoot up, to ask the same question in every session I went to: What about the poor? I should get the question tattooed on my forehead. I should make it backwards, just so I have to ask myself it first thing in the mornings when I look into the mirror.What does any of this mean if it is only available for a few?

I am thinking about how my ESL students are at the very bottom of our Empire, but whose lives are very much of ultimate concern. I am thinking about the cell phones, going off every few minutes, similar to the poor around the world, adapting to our shifting, stateless world. I am thinking about how they always answer the phones–not because they do not respect me or because they do not want to learn. They answer every phone call that they receive, because each one is of equal importance to them. They never know who is calling–a family member in Africa, a case-worked in America. They have to answer every single one, because it might be life or death, like so many things are.

They answer every call that comes in because they cannot read, not even the numbers.



I went to a session with Eliza Griswold, author of the Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, a women who has been on the frontline of war and poverty and religion, all over Asia and Africa. She talked about her new book of poems by Afghan women which she collected, and what they mean for those who create and recite them. Why does she share them? Because they are valuable. Why does she share them with us, with the world? Because she sees the limitations of how we portray people in the media, and she wants to subvert that. “I am not interested in the headlines,” she told us. “But I am very interested in the places where the headlines are happening”.

I’m taking that one for a new life motto. I am uninterested in the stories of poverty that you and I already know. I am very invested in the ones that surprise us, thrill us, knock us on our asses. The humor, the pathos, the sin, the ingenuity. Griswold shared with us one of the poems in her book, from which the title comes:


In my dream, I am the president.

When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.


As you would expect, the rest of the poems are stunningly varied; tragic, violent, romantic, naughty, hilarious, contemporary, ancient. Reminiscent of my students, my friends, my neighborhood. Today, in class, another crisis was revealed, and I at a loss for how I can help, limited by my language and knowledge and the overwhelming magnitude of the problems that the poor and the non-literate face in my corner of the world. The beggars of the world is how some would view it, and I confess at times I am tempted to do the same. But we are not headlines. We are real people, real women, real stories. We are living in the places where the headlines take place, and I on a quest for the work of the kingdom of God in the midst of the violence and greed of our world.

I am thinking of the phones, ringing constantly in my ear, of what it means to never know who is on the other line. I am thinking about the frustration of never knowing how to translate well. I am thinking about how much I enjoy erudite, complex, academic conferences, and how ashamed and small it makes me feel. I am thinking about all the wonderful people I met this weekend, the gifts they are to me. I am thinking about all the people who weren’t there, who felt excluded in some way–due to race or education or religion or money. I am thinking about how rich we are in some currencies, and utterly poor we are in others. I am thinking of how in order to tell stories well we must first be obsessed with them, how love covers a multitude of transcribing sins.


I am thinking about cell phones. I am thinking about how little I know, what a beggar of the world I am.





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I live in a neighborhood where the youth group comes on Spring Break. I see them prayer walking, prayer giggling, prayer flirting up and down my slushy, grimy streets. I hear them, and I am transported back to last summer, when the churches flocked in to the neighborhood parks, put up awnings, cooked a meal, gave a message. People wandered around in T-shirts that said “Bringing Good to the ‘Hood”. I went there a few times with my daughter, happy to eat a free chicken dinner. But I stared at the people running around in their lime green t-shirts, and I was confused. I forgot, for a moment, that I lived in the hood. Thanks for the reminder. I forgot, for a moment, that there was no good here until you showed up with your microphones and chicken dinners and matchy-matchy shirts. Thank you, thank you for bringing it, I shook my head slowly, wiped the sauce off of my daughter’s fingers.  I felt sorry for the do-gooders who I am now willing to assign positive, if not ill-advised, intent. I felt bad for them, not being as enlightened and humble and missional as I was. I ate my free chicken dinner, on the dime of the large church a few blocks and a million years away from what goes on in this park, and I felt smug.

I had lived here one year. I too, in my heart of hearts, believed that I was bringing good to the hood. I had just learned to not put it on a t-shirt anymore.


I am an outsider wherever I go. I on-purpose moved into a neighborhood, a job, a life, and relationships with people who are so very different from me. It takes so much work, every day, just to navigate the perils of these differences. To try and understand better. To try and learn better. To try and advocate in a way that is actually needed. To will myself small, like the little seeds Jesus was so fond of.

But inside there are dreams of large trees, big enough to create safe havens for the birds of the air. I am writing, all day every day, in my head. The disasters, the miracles. The despair, the joy. The abuses, the sadness, the mental illness, the addictions, the disabilities; the perseverance, the community, the colors, the embraces. The erasers taped on to the end of a pencil. A box of free bananas in the hallway. The snow slowly melting to reveal a graveyard of vodka bottles, gray and blue and brown. The youth group roaming outside of my window, hungry and scared for that mysterious, inscrutable kingdom to come. I don’t even know it until I write it all down: I love them. I love everything about my life, even as it pulls me down, forces me to see inside myself in ways I never wished for. And that too, I must write about.

Every day I surround myself with people who are so different from me. Every day I write. There are so many ways I could do it better, so many fears of not doing it right. Like translating poetry, as my friend J.R. says. We have a choice: it is too much work, too perilous, too fraught with complications and you leave it be; or, you pick up your courage and try your darndest to translate to the very best of your ability. Either way, your heart comes out a little bit more broken.

One of my writer friends was talking to me about her own feelings on the subject. She mentioned the War Photographer series we ran here, and how she thought about it often. I just wish, she said, that so many people hadn’t ended in the place of “well, it’s really hard and complicated, so I guess I better not tell any stories”. Her voice is ringing in my ear, echoing what I don’t say often enough, but I believe right to my very core: there are so many stories waiting to be told, and they need to be told well.

I am in the thick of it; my life is a fine balance between learning and practice. Of getting high and mighty and then getting the smugness kicked out of you by life. Of blundering, learning, making mistakes, asking for forgiveness, picking yourself up and trying again. Of becoming paralyzed by our privilege and choices and systems, and forging on to be the miserable, lonely, messed-up agents of reconciliation that we really are.

I still have dreams of large trees, of beautiful safe places for the sparrows of our world. This, of course, is one dream in the kingdom of God. But for me, these types of dreams are so tied to productivity, problem-solving, tangible proof that I am bringing good, one small step away from a lime green t-shirt of my own. And the reality, the way I have seen the kingdom at work in my life is like seeds spilled and scattered on the ground. I am the farmer, oblivious and bumbling, not knowing how in the world these seeds sprout and grow. But they do, the seeds of Christ and his love for his world, they are sprouting all around. Some look like weeds to me, some look like fruit, they all look like people I know and love and am in relationship with. I always thought I would be ready for the harvest, a sickle in my hand, content to reap and be proud of all the good work I had done.

And instead I am being told to sit tight, listen hard, and watch the kingdom grow.  Be prepared to have your heart broken over and over again. Pray for the day when you are no longer needed, and until then translate those poems you are privileged enough to see, the ones that often enough look scattered, lonely, decayed and forgotten.

And stick around long enough to see the good that grows up and out.











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Expensive Narratives: Captain Philips and the Somali Community

I watched the Oscars on Sunday (how did I make it through award shows before the snarky, humorous insights of Twitter?) and I rooted for my boy, Barkhad Abdi. Even though I knew it was a long shot for him to win Best Supporting Actor, it was still surreal to see one of my neighbors, a Cedar Riverside proud Somali boy, walking that red carpet. And it made me long for the day when actors like Barkhad and Lupita have thousands of roles to choose from–and they don’t just have to play pirates or slaves.



Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne


I recently wrote about what it’s been like to be at the periphery of the East African diaspora in America. Every day I am astonished at who is carving out a life in this frozen tundra of a land (Lewis and Clark deemed it “inhabitable” back in the day, and I am inclined to agree with them). I find myself living and working in the heart of a community which is complicated, inspiring, thriving–and repeatedly misrepresented by the media.

I haven’t written too much about my personal life here, for many reasons. The spotlight on Barkhad Abdi and his role in Captain Philips made for a timely piece, and it finally felt appropriate for me to share my own experiences here.  While I am not an expert on Somalis or the East African community, I believe that it might be helpful for other outsiders like myself to get a peek at a different narrative than the one we are being told over and over again.

Here’s the beginning:



My friend was celebrating Eid Al-Adha, the Islamic holiday commemorating the feast of Abraham, like everyone else was: by going to the Mall of America. I went with her and her family, wearing the clothes she had given me for the occasion. My dress was colorful and flowy; we wandered around the mall and people-watched. It was still a bit early, but the large East African diaspora in the middle of the Midwest was already beginning to pour in. Families, as far as the eye can see, laughing husbands, smiling mothers, children running and shrieking, everyone dressed up in their best clothes, shopping, riding the carousel. I followed my friends, insecure in my outfit, feeling like an imposter or worse—someone playing dress up. The clothes that hung so elegantly on my friends looked like a costume on me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had done something wrong, just by trying to fit in, to look like everyone else, to celebrate a day and a culture that is not my own.

After a few hours, my friend took off to go see the movie Captain Phillips in the the theater, while I headed home. Later, I asked her what she thought of the film. Oh my gosh, she said, it was amazing. Really? I asked, slightly taken aback. Yeah, she said, the whole theater couldn’t stop laughing. Laughing? I asked, at what? Isn’t it a sad movie?

Yeah, I know, she said, but we couldn’t help it! Although I was a little worried—the few white people in the theater started staring at all of us. But any time one of the Somali boys on-screen would start talking, we would start to laugh. It was just so funny to see them up there, talking in Somali.

Why was it so funny? I asked, still confused.

She turned to look at me, and said it matter-of-fact: because we had never heard anyone speak Somali in a movie before. It was so strange, and so, so funny.  She paused a beat, and then acknowledged: even if what they were saying wasn’t really funny at all.

Go to Christ and Pop Culture to read the rest. The piece is an exclusive feature that has been shared with you but is otherwise available only in Volume 2, Issue 5 of the Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. For more features like this, download our app for iPad and iPhone from Apple’s App Store.  More information here.

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A Fight For Beauty–Guest Post by Marilyn Gardner

Marilyn is a dear presence on the internet, full of wisdom and calm and yet a heart that is always searching for more. I adore her for her heart for cross-cultural relationships and her literary approach to life. Marilyn is totally somebody I want to grow up to be like.

Fighting for beauty is definitely an everyday part of life over here (some days it is a  battle, other days it is easy as pie). And the fight for love, truth, and beauty is always worth it.


A Fight For Beauty

Guest post by Marilyn Gardner


It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’m looking out my window at a blanket of white snow. It is soft and pristine in its beauty. The snow has covered up cars, streets, sidewalks. It has also covered up garbage bins and garbage.

My Greek neighbor has already been out shoveling and I hear the sound of his metal shovel against the concrete. He puts the rest of us, who wait until we have no choice, to shame with his disciplined shoveling and keeping of the sidewalk in front of his apartment snow-free.

The snow is beautiful. But I know in an hour, two hours tops, it will have turned from fluffy white to squishy brown. Because this is the city.

There are times when living in the city is not about downward mobility, when it’s not about relationships or intentional living.

Instead, there are times when living in the city is about a fight for beauty.

This was true in Egypt. It was true in Pakistan. And it’s true where I now live.

We live in the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, not the Cambridge of the Harvard elite or the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) nerd. Rather, the Cambridge of the other 80%. The Cambridge that is middle class, refugee, immigrant, or single mom.

The ‘real’ Cambridge, we like to call it. The Cambridge where high school students refer to areas as Coast and Port and where teen moms bring their babies to the day care center at the high school. The Cambridge where cars are broken into and neighborhoods work hard to become safer. The Cambridge where the homeless gather in raucous community at Central Square, oblivious to any great minds that may have walked their path. The Cambridge where Jahar Tamarlaen, the alleged Boston bomber lived and played sports and went to prom and knew my daughter.

And in this real Cambridge I realize that for me it becomes a fight for beauty, a fight to see redemptive beauty in daily life.

In the spring, it’s a fight to find the crocus that has worked its way through hard, city soil and blooms, brilliant blue or yellow. A fight to see beyond city problems to forsythia, that first reminder that spring has come.

In the summer, it’s a conscious effort to see the rose peaking through the rusted chain-link fence; to see sun flowers raise their giant heads tall to the sky against a concrete back drop. It’s a fight to see beyond the cigarette butts crumpled on the ground with last night’s garbage, made worse by the summer rain, and see instead dew drops on sparse grass.

In the fall, it’s a fight to look up and not down – up at towering trees glowing in Autumn glory, taking me away from broken bottles and ugly, barred windows.

In the winter, it’s a fight to see beyond the bitter cold mornings and homeless huddled under thin blankets, grey and worn. A fight to take the extra step and buy that cup of blueberry coffee with 8 packets of the artificial sweetener – because that’s the way he likes his coffee. A fight to find out names and see Sheryl and Valerie and Donald as real people, not homeless numbers. A fight to witness Imago Dei in the eyes of those who walk these streets.

So I walk and I put on my armor so I can fight for beauty. So I can walk with lenses cleaned, eye-sight restored to see beauty in the ordinary, everyday ugly.

A fight for beauty – a prayer that the Beautiful One who restores and redeems will give me eyes to see beauty.






unnamed-2Marilyn Gardner was raised in Pakistan and as an adult lived, worked, and raised a family first in Pakistan and then in Cairo, Egypt. She now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she works as a public health nurse with underserved communities and vulnerable populations. She wrestles through life, faith, and third culture kid issues through blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.








For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.

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If You Knew Me, You Would Care


Another day, another dollar, another crisis I should be caring about.

Another day, another post, another thought on downward mobility–how the term doesn’t work, how it isn’t good enough, how if we don’t have love . . .

Another day, another question. Not the ones I used to ask (Lord, send me. Let my heart be broken by the things that break your heart.) but the ones I don’t care to admit to anyone (have I done enough yet? Can I relax now? When is enough enough?)


I started a new job this week, it’s perfect for me in every way, down to the level of chaotic ambiguity that surrounds the classroom. I teach literacy to adults who may never have held a pencil in their lives before. We meet in a computer lab, a battered fooseball table for my desk. I don’t know all of the stories of my students, because we don’t speak the same language. I can guess at the little I know, which is laughable. And it is hard, wearisome work, to go over the ABC’s a thousand times and then for us all to realize that nobody remembers them still–the after effects of war, trauma, unmentionable acts committed against the body and spirit. Learning to write your own name becomes a symbol of something so much more: you are an overcomer.

Refugees have changed my life in so many ways. Once I meet a group, a clan, a tribe, I want to know so much about them: the way they dress, the tattoos on their face and hands, what their favorite food is. I want to know about their past, if they want to share it. I want to talk about all the ways that America has been kind, and all the ways that she has been cruel. I want to be a friendly face, a listening ear.

I want to know all these stories, and more, because they are the only things that get me to care about anyone besides myself.


My husband just checked out a book from the library called If You Knew Me, You Would Care. In it there are large, breathtaking portraits of women–survivors of unimaginable traumas. These women were interviewed and photographed by other women, and their stories shock and amaze. Their faces, so large, so human, so crystal-clear, run the range of human emotion: improbable joy, blankness, defiance. I could look at these pictures for hours. The stories, I only glance at briefly. How much more tragedy can I bear?


Perhaps this is why the images in the book are so big. The hardest quotes, filling up an entire page. To me, they say: Don’t look away. If you knew me, you would care. If you stopped to humanize me, even for a second, it would change the way you lived your life. Because caring doesn’t equate with an emotion–sadness, shock, gratefulness. Caring equates with tangible, physical acts: cups of cold water, Jesus would say. A coat to someone in need if we owned two. An hour or two out of our day to visit those imprisoned or in the hospital.

But it’s easier to close the book, go back to my life of worries. I write blog posts about downward mobility and dream at night of one day having a space for my child to run in the grass; I spend an hour or two praying for eyes to see and hands to bless my neighborhood, and sink exhausted on my couch every night, escaping either into a book or a television show.

Because I know people now, and they have made me care. But here is the other truth that no one want to talk about, that we spend all our time protecting at all costs: our culture thrives on forgetting. On distractions, petty concerns, and the crushing pursuit of individual comfort. Every day is a struggle to care. The only thing that makes it easier is if you are forced to confront it, time and time again. If you put yourself in the position where you can’t opt out–where there are no drive-through Starbucks, clean and bright Barnes and Nobles, massive church complexes with state-of-the-art sets. Where instead there are tangible evidences of the disparity of our economic system, where people are much more comfortable in voicing both their joys and complaints in the streets. In order to care, it turns out, I have to be in a place where every day I have to look one simple truth in the eye: my reality is not the reality of the majority world.




I read an excellent blog post this morning–honest, searing. In it, the author says:

“Can we, being part of the top 10% wealthiest in the world, be trusted?  How does our dependence on wealth color our self-assessment and judgment?  Regardless of how earnestly wealthy Christians try to be directed by the Holy Spirit of God, we’ve all still got our goods—not to mention our social standing, class, gender and ethnic power.  We remain comfortably perched above global exploitation.  Is that just “the path” Jesus has called us lucky ones down? Or have we neglected something in the ‘I’ll follow you wherever you go’ tune?”

No matter where I go, I’m still comfortably perched. No matter what I do, it isn’t enough. Yes, yes, Funfetti and all that. I know that God loves me no matter what I do. But he also loves the people being crushed by the systems that make my life better. He Loves them. He is in constant sorrow over them. He will avenge them, surely. And he would like me to get to know them, for my own sake as much as theirs.

Talking about downward mobility doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface when we are talking about the suffering of people in places like Syria right now. Almost every day I am in contact with someone who has experienced their own form of Syria, has overcome so much more than I could ever imagine. Every day my hands are open, empty, pleading. I don’t know how to help. I don’t know how to do anything except show up again, to prepare to be overwhelmed once more. I look into their eyes and think: that’s why I moved into your neighborhood–so then I can’t escape your reality as easily as I would like. 

Shane Claiborne worked at a mega church for a year, and this is what he walked away with: “the problem isn’t that there are rich folks and poor folks in the world–the problem is that the rick folks don’t know any poor folks”.

Because we all have the image of God in us. And if we knew the poor–as in, longer than a week, a blogging trip, a year in the ghetto–we would care. We would care to the point where love would compel us to do things both crazy and mundane. Our lives would revolve not around safety and security but around justice and righteousness.

And we would all be richer for it.


My internet friend Marilyn contacted me about spreading the word about some tangible ways we can help Syria. She put together a blog on some practical kits that concerned people can put together. Click here to read more at her space, or you can go directly to International Orthodox Christian Charities for more information on the kits.

All images from If You Knew Me You Would Care, by Rennio Mafredi. For more information on the book (a part of Women for Women International), please click here.



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The Stories We Want to Hear


photo by my amazing husband.

photo by my amazing husband.


I wrote a piece for The Curator this week on some ethics we may want to consider when writing non-fiction. It sort of processed a few of my thoughts from the War Photographers series, and I got to name-drop my favorite authors (Rakoff, Foster-Wallace, Boo) and talk about being a Christian and writing about others. You know, my jam.


Here’s the intro:


The past year, my toddler and I started attending a mommy-and-me class. We deliberately picked one that focused on a diverse group of people—indeed, we found ourselves to be the only native English speakers in our class, save for the teachers. As an ESL teacher, this was perfect—hanging out with a bunch of women from all over East Africa (the cohort we ended up in) was the only way I would have been motivated to get my two-year-old and me out the door every week. Interesting, hilarious, devastating—the stories and discussions we had in our little group had me glued to my chair, every time.

One day the head teacher pulled me aside and asked me how I thought the class was going. I told her truthfully that I loved it, especially since we always veered somewhat off-topic (we were an opinionated, non-linear bunch). She cocked her head and looked at me, trying to size me up. “You know,” she said, “our program gets a lot of heat for not being diverse enough.” I knew that we were a blip on the radar, one class out of hundreds full of people who all looked like me. “But after teaching these classes for over thirty years, let me tell you something—people always say they want to be in a diverse class. But what they really mean is that they would like to look around the room and see people who look different from them, but who act exactly like them.” She sighed, and shook her head. “They say it, but they don’t actually ever want it.” She patted my arm, and wandered off to stop Mohammed from flinging himself off the plastic slide. And as she said it, I knew she was right. She was talking about me.



Go on over and read the rest at the Curator. 



(PS:  I really like the Curator. They are the only site I could think of that would let me talk about all those aforementioned authors AND what a Christian ethic of non-ficiton would look like. They have inspired me to seek and pursue after beauty, everywhere. They are currently holding a indigogo campaign that you might want to think about checking out).

(PSS: Just yesterday the great Rachel Pieh Jones published a bunch of amazing resources for those of us who are interested in the ethics of non-fiction. I want to read all the books! Go check that out here.)

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Fellow Traveler

It’s been a little quiet here, but it doesn’t mean my life has been like that.

Since January, when I decided to stop writing about my every day life, I have experienced a profound change. I love letting this blog go. I love pouring out my angst into safer vessels (my journal, husband, and *gasp* even Christ). I love giving up a piece of myself that I was finding just a bit too much identity in. And identity, and vocation, have been very much on my mind as of late.

I started the War Photographer series because I had a lot of questions in relation to my identity as a writer; what I got instead was a collection of thoughtful, hopeful treatises on the inherent value of our neighbors, and an admonition to do absolutely true by them. To love people well, to write about them second. To live life together, and out of the overflow of relationship speak. In the end this is what I discovered: I don’t think we are ever truly meant to be a War Photographer–it is a vocation borne out of the brokenness of our world. The true ideal is much simpler, much less grand: we are called to be neighbors, not transients reporters.

The reflections on War Photography have changed and moved me, and I am grateful to the myriad of voices that contributed. I still have a few more guest posts in the works that you will not want to miss, and then this series will be done. I created a tab at the top where you can find the entirety of the series, in the order that they were posted.

I wrote a little bit about this journey for my good friend J.R., over at her excellent blog. Here is an excerpt:

I am currently in a season where it is not valuable to write about my life; relationships are still in infancy, my own emotions are all over the map. In the future, there may be a possibility of doing it well. But for now I am in a place where I am learning to dig deep wells, both within myself and my community. I am in a place of seeking solitude, of sitting with my questions, of discovering who I am and what I believe. This is not a time to produce, to be subject to the whims of the crowd. This is a time to dig deep, to enter into the wilderness with no knowledge of when, or how, I will ever come out. Like Buechner says: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” By stepping back and allowing some silence into my writing life, I have found the antithesis of fear. I have allowed love to open up my thoughts, words and actions. I have given up the right to represent people, to use them, and to process through them. I am trying to give up my idols of being understood, of being recognized, of putting the entire burden of the world on my small and stooped shoulders. Instead, I am busy pursuing reality, and it is more beautiful and terrifying than I ever imagined.


Go on over and read the rest. 



But: just because I will not be writing about my specific context doesn’t mean I won’t be writing.

Stay tuned for some exciting new stuff.


How To Be A War Photographer

Today is part 2 of Darren Prince’s post on mutuality and accidental distances (You can read part 1 here). Today, I asked Darren to bring it–and he did. This is the post I wish I had read years ago, one I wish all bloggers, writers, photographers–heck, anybody trying to talk about their lives with integrity–would read and absorb.

In the next couple of weeks I will be talking about how my writing habits have changed dramatically, and what that means. It is challenging, exciting, and energizing to write in the small, mustard-seed ways. It is the hardest, and most rewarding thing there is to step back and allow space for reflection–which allows the small signs of the kingdom to bloom and sprout and be shared. 

Thank you, Darren, for writing out a very practical guide for all of us. 

How to be a War Photographer

Now then, how about we pull up to 30,000 feet and indulge in a little metacognition together? By which I mean, let’s talk about what we’re talking about when we tell the stories of our neighborhoods. Got it?

I’m not much of a blogger and don’t have anything by way of an internet following. But I’ve lived in two major cities, befriended dozens of people (rich and poor alike), and communicated vision, purpose and just plain “updates” via good-old-fashioned newsletters for over fifteen years now. I’ve seen a thing or two and have learned to sniff out those moments, sometimes while the ink-toner is still drying, when I’m about to cross the line from creative to creepy.

The last thing I ever wanted to do was be “that guy” who posts a “Top 7 Ways You Can XYZ!” on the internet, but hey, at the special request of our host, I’ll empty my pockets for you. Besides, if I had kept it I’d probably drink with it anyway.

1. Grow Up Already

Look, the metaphor gets overused, but somehow we still forget it. Jesus himself incarnated as a baby into a particular family, in a particular culture, at a particular time in history. He then weaned, waddled, teethed and toddled his way through childhood into awkward adolescence. Finally, he gets around to kicking off his public ministry at the vigorous age of thirty.

Maybe he needed time to learn language, figure out how to address his elders, or practice culturally relevant storytelling in an agrarian society. (My bet is that he spent time learning to laugh at himself). All I’m saying is he showed up, grew up, and then did his thing. And he didn’t even write about it. He left the writing to others.

I think a lot of the damage is done when we’re new and we don’t know any better. We can’t help seeing things from our own frame of reference; but in our enthusiasm to dispatch updates back to the home office, how can we be sure we aren’t merely reinforcing the same tired stereotypes?

The solution? Give yourself time. You’ll see things differently in six weeks, six months, six years. You’ll chuckle to yourself when you realize in hindsight what that awkward moment was all about at the party four months ago. You’ll wince to realize that the connection you thought you were making was actually just another deep disconnect.

And you know what? That’s okay. Growing up from zero was good enough for Jesus. It should be good enough for us. Just don’t publicize it all. You know, like those parents who post to Facebook every poo-poo little Johnny makes? Don’t be like that with your inner cross-cultural child. Let her grow up with some dignity intact.

Keep a (private) journal instead. Write letters to mom, or call a friend. Find a community (a local one, even if you’ve found a virtual one) to journey with you through the hard stuff. Invite them laugh and lament with you.

And for crying out loud keep your vomiting off the interwebs for a little while. The medium matters. Google is real and your quirky little anecdotes about your neighbors are searchable, indefinitely archived for future civilizations to scratch their heads at and wonder.

I have a friend who says don’t post or send anything you wouldn’t be willing to hang on the refrigerator for your neighbors to see. Do it for the dignity of your future best friends.

2. Re-Shape Your Readers’ Expectations

The point of my previous ode to mutuality was this: if genuine friendship invites us to step into the war-photo, we begin to care even more about how the lighting looks. When we’re personally invested in the story of what God is doing in our neighborhood, we want to make sure that story gets told well.

This means writing without exaggeration or added drama. We can leave stories which exploit for page views (or donations?) to other media outlets. (Must. Resist. Linking example offenders here.)

And besides, it’s boring. Story distortion goes all the way back to Eden where the Serpent conveniently misquotes the Maker. Half-truths and mistaken attributions are old-school enemy tactics; Kingdom storytelling can do better.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing for unflinching photo-realism here. But the truly great stories you want to tell about your friends or your community – the happy stories and the hard ones alike – if they’re truly worth telling, they won’t need anything added or embellished.

In a world where somehow we’ve allowed fog machines, stage lighting, and even zip lines to super-size our worship services, it’s time we taught our readers the pleasure of a simple story told well. I wrote an entire newsletter once about missing a bus (and the miraculous conversation about Jesus which followed). Another update featured our family practice of inviting friends over for Saturday morning pancakes. Not exactly shovel and pith-helmet material here folks.

Some of us are torn between our desire to communicate with integrity and a readership – sometimes, a donor base (?!) – which is eager for results or infatuated with the brightest, shiniest new thing. But life in a mustard-seed kingdom starts small and grows slow. People who choose to accompany you for that journey need your help recalibrating their expectations. “If you’re looking for earth shattering headline news, look elsewhere. Or come back in twelve years and let me show you around.”

Yes it’s fashionable, even expected, for non-profits to have a slick plan and a fail-proof strategy; I’ve got nothing against that. But on slow news days it’s so much easier to write a tragic story in which we get to play the white-knight-to-the-rescue.

In reality, sometimes the best we’ve got to report for this month is, “Here’s how we’re muddling along.”

My solution? Remind people that you’re still in a posture of listening and adapting. The world needs more “Here are a few things I’m learning, but I might be wrong” posts from those of us laboring for the common good. Writing with humility reminds our readers that there are humans involved, even humans who make mistakes out of a desire to help. Writing with mutuality in mind prevents “the poor” from being objectified as problems in need of a solution.

As you describe your own journey, warts and all, your discoveries become your readers’ discoveries. Their view of your context reaches upwards, stretching to fit yours as they watch your “growing up” right in front of their eyes.

3. Run It By Somebody First

To summarize what I’ve said so far: Give yourself time to “grow up” and see things differently before you start writing about it. But if you have to write, do it with integrity–a kind of faithfulness to the whole story–including your part in it!

But before you release that colorful piece of reflective writing into the wild, first consider running it by a trusted friend. Invite them to be a check against your tendency to embellish the facts or add sizzle to something in a way which might exploit or diminish.

I’d love to believe we could all be trusted to do this for ourselves, but sometimes we just need another set of eyes. Our stubborn writing habits and lazy inconsistencies are experts at hiding out in our blind-spots. Nothing clears the cob-webs like the honesty of a secondary read-through. Followed by a straight-talk chaser. Find this person and you’ve discovered gold.

Better yet, share a draft of what you’ve written with the very person you’re writing about. Beyond just asking for vague permission, ask them if what you’re sharing is okay with them. Do they remember the story differently? What would they change? Do they find it honoring or diminishing?

I realize this suggestion tests the full mettle of what might be a blossoming mutual friendship. But each time I’ve done this the responses have been everything from flattered to deep appreciation and joy. There’s a sacred moment to be savored when we realize – no, when we accept – that our story is important enough to be shared with others. I watch in awe as this realization creeps across the faces of my friends. We are both left wide-eyed at the wonder of it all.

When I asked my friend Joe if he would like to preview an early draft of yesterday’s post about him, he wryly responded:

“Darren, are you telling stories about me again? Well, don’t let the pen get more mightier then the sword! Hah. Well, send me some of the dirt as they say. And I will shovel it out.”

Then when I sent him a close approximation of what you read yesterday, he emailed back his approval with two quick lines:

“It sounds about right as I recall. Thanks for the memories :)”

Here again, in the sacred space of our friendship, we’ve formed an alliance around the sharing of the story we hold in common. The story of his transition off the streets into permanent housing, and of my “growing up” on the streets under his mentoring and kindness. Our story of mutual transformation; the one in which God grants us both the unexpected gift of a life-long friendship.

DP 2012Darren is a former Californian living in London, married to Pam and raising three increasingly British-sounding children. Since 1997 he’s been part of InnerCHANGE, a Christian order pursuing merciful action, transformative contemplation and prophetic justice in urban centers and slums around the world.

He enjoys single-origin coffees, reading for pleasure, walk-and-talks with friends, and geeky tech podcasts. Sometimes you’ll find him picking up toys before a family dance throw-down in the living room.

Darren has contributed to “Sub-merge: Living Deep in a Shallow World” by InnerCHANGE founder John Hayes, as well as “Living Mission: The Vision and Voices of the New Friars.” Though he would much rather do this stuff than talk about it, maybe one day soon he’ll start a new blog, where he will most likely not write about himself in third person. You can follow him @darrenprince

Don’t you think Darren should have a blog? I do!

As a reminder, 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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War Photographer: Darren Prince

I am beyond thrilled to introduce today’s guest post, because it is perfect for where we are at in this conversation. Darren is an excellent writer, a large-hearted thinker, technology geek, coffee snob, and all-around cool guy. He is someone who has been living and working amongst the poor for a very long time, and he has some deliciously concrete thoughts for us. Today, he is going to share a bit of his story and thoughts on War Photography, and tomorrow he will be back with some practicalities (a list!) for those of us struggling with how to share these stories well.



On Mutuality and Our Accidental Distances

Photo of Joe by Paul Nix

Photo of Joe by Caroline

My first decade of urban life was spent unlearning patterns and habits I’d picked up in the saccharine safety of my suburban upbringing. This was made abundantly clear when my homeless gutter-punk friends in San Francisco gently suggested I no longer wear my college sweatshirt. The metamorphosis of downward mobility is agonizingly slow and sometimes painfully embarrassing. Now, in hindsight, retiring the “blue and orange” for a tattered black hoodie was the easy part.

My mentor in the ways of the street was a middle-aged homeless man named Joe. By the time I met him he’d spent half his life as a wandering nomad. The most permanent address he had ever held was a foxhole so deep in the woods of Golden Gate Park that gardeners and police would never find him. I was occasionally invited back to visit him at his camp spot. It was the only place in the city where you could listen to crickets and watch the fog roll in.

Joe and I became good friends. He introduced me to his street pals and I occasionally had him over to the house for a meal or a shower. Then there was the time he orchestrated a “learning exercise” for me and a few others: a real-life, multi-day homelessness “taster” Joe had named “First Hand Experience.” The title was blunt and uninventive, but there was a kind of mischievous glee in his voice as he announced it. (By the way, as much as I loathe most “homeless excursion” attempts out there, you really can’t beat one that is constructed and supervised by a real homeless person on real streets for multiple days.)

By this point in our friendship Joe had moved out of the park and into the room next door to me in our home. But we shared way more than a wall. Looking back on it, this was an ambitious undertaking. He was my homeless street mentor and I was his housemate. We were like two cultural anthropologists attempting to do field studies on one another, but with neither one of us in our natural habitats. It’s a good thing we were friends or we probably would have killed each other. [1]

I glimpsed the irony of it all on the morning of day four or five of Joe’s craftily arranged “First Hand Experience.” We were camped out in the park through several sleepless nights of rain and heavy fog, bedded down on cardboard Joe had taught us to scrounge. We relied on leftover handouts and shared food from the underground food co-op Joe brokered amongst his other homeless friends. I woke up tired, sore, and desperately in need of a hot cup of coffee.

That’s when Joe walked up. Smiling. Freshly showered and perky from a great night of sleep at my house. He claimed he was just stopping by to check up on us; just him and the steaming hot cup of Starbucks he was holding.
There is a story about C.S. Lewis which I heard once but haven’t been able to verify anywhere official [2]. But since this is the internet, I’ll let it stand on its own even if it blurs the line between fact and fantasy [3]:

Lewis was once out on a stroll around Oxford with one of his fellow professors, as was his regular custom, when they happened upon a beggar asking for change. Lewis reached into his pocket and dropped everything he had into the beggars hat.

“Why would you give money to that man?” Lewis’ friend asked incredulously. “You know he’s just going to use it all for drink.”

Lewis replied, “If I had kept the money, I’d have used it for drink as well.”

Many people ask me what they should do when homeless people approach them for money. Honestly, I don’t have a stock answer because I don’t think every person or need is the same. But I do love telling that Lewis story. I find his honesty disruptive, his humility unflinching. And I love the way that triangular interaction between Lewis, his skeptical friend and a beggar, peels the curtain back to reveal our common humanity.

Sadly, we are often so consumed by the differences we see in the “other” that we forget all the glorious and inglorious things we hold in common. Our mutual love of coffee or disdain for cats. Our potential misuse of money which isn’t ours to begin with. The quiet ache for far-away family. Our secretly-nurtured insecurities and harbored fears.

Pushing past “mission” to find genuine mutuality is more than just a postmodern catch-phrase like “incarnational” or “community.” It’s the basis for transformative friendships like mine with Joe. Somehow, in that painstaking journey from “client” to “friend” we stopped viewing one another as bags of assorted issues that needed fixing. I abandoned the notion that Joe take off his boots before getting into bed now that he was living inside. And Joe stopped reminding me that life wasn’t run by what I kept in my Franklin Covey day-planner.

Somewhere in there we laid down our armaments of mutually assured condemnation and discovered the beauty of generative friendship. Mutuality broke through like sun piercing San Francisco fog.

So my only problem with war photography as an image for this series is the distance it suggests. Like somehow I’m supposed to pull back, stand at a distance, and hold a lens between me and what I’m observing.

I already come from a long tradition of inherited distance from the poor and marginalized. I’ll be honest, I reek of privilege: middle-class, college educated, heterosexual North American male. I can’t apologize for it, but I can learn to acknowledge how privilege influences my view of the world: like a distortion lens on every photo I want to take.

So in my nearly twenty year quest to see things from a different vista, I’ve become growingly aware of the accidental distances I create to preserve myself. Not to mention the distances created for me by others.

But what happens if I set the war-camera on a tripod and step into the picture myself? Not in an artificial or nuevo-colonial way, but to the degree that I’m invited in by my neighbors who have become my friends? What happens when “their neighborhood” becomes “ours?” When that troubled school down the street becomes the place I entrust my children to? Where the “unsafe streets” are places where we’ve both made our dwelling?

This is where friendships formed around mutuality become a life-line, closing the distance between my unchecked cultural assumptions and your reality. We can no longer hide behind the masks we’ve fashioned for ourselves – or assigned to one another.

Mutual friendship is how the stories we tell about others – and about ourselves – become truer at the core. When we’ve stripped back the embellishing Insta-filters we place over the stories we tell, and let the raw exposure peek through, a quiet integrity emerges. It’s the integrity that comes with the realization that this is our story, the story of us.

So the story of my generosity in response to your need is only one angle; what about the part where we’re both just as likely to spend the money destructively? What about the part where you’ve welcomed me into your home just as much I’ve welcomed you into ours? How do I account for the unnumbered ways you’ve taught me more than I could ever imagine teaching you?

photo by Peter Anderson

photo by Peter Anderson

Not far from where we now live in London, a stone statue rises in memory of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. It’s always been a peculiar statue to me, in part because of its posture, but also for what it’s missing.

There stands Booth, tall and commanding in his army-like attire, with a stern look on his face and one boney pointer finger raised in the air, like a preacher in mid-sentence or a judge about to lay down the law. For all the good Booth did for the poor of east London during his era, it seems odd that his sculptor chose to memorialize him as the fiery street-preacher he was in his early days. But that’s not the part that intrigues me.

This memorial statue has been mounted atop a short half-flight of stairs, as if William Booth somehow ascended his soapbox one day, raised his preaching finger in the air and froze in time forever. Is it a warning? A welcome? A reminder? (I so want to tie a string around that finger someday, my subversive act of vandalism for the social good).

But here’s the thing. Months before the London Olympics in 2012 a second set of steps was erected immediately across from Booth’s statue, a subtle counter-point to Booth’s memorial.

Only, it’s been left empty. Six steps lead up to a vacant platform.

And I find myself wondering – who was that platform built for? Perhaps it’s for Booth’s wife, Catherine, who though unmemorialized, was equally a co-conspirator and co-founder of the Salvation Army’s work among the poor. Where is her statue? (And what would her frozen-in-time posture be?)

Maybe the newly added steps to nowhere are an open invitation for the future Booths of our community to ascend and carry on in prophetic urban mission. A kind of permanent casting-call for would-be figures of William and Catherine’s stature.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s a public artist’s ode to mutuality. Where anyone can rise and be at eye level with our neighborhood’s greatest hero, pointy finger and all. Where perhaps the poor of our community can stand up and finally tell their own stories for themselves.

  1. Correction: It would be generous to suggest that I’d stand any chance against this guy in a cage match.  ↩
  2. Maybe here?  ↩
  3. It should be noted that this is perfectly acceptable when it comes to the likes of C.S. Lewis.  ↩

DP 2012Darren is a former Californian living in London, married to Pam and raising three increasingly British-sounding children. Since 1997 he’s been part of InnerCHANGE, a Christian order pursuing merciful action, transformative contemplation and prophetic justice in urban centers and slums around the world.

He enjoys single-origin coffees, reading for pleasure, walk-and-talks with friends, and geeky tech podcasts. Sometimes you’ll find him picking up toys before a family dance throw-down in the living room.

Darren has contributed to “Sub-merge: Living Deep in a Shallow World” by InnerCHANGE founder John Hayes, as well as “Living Mission: The Vision and Voices of the New Friars.” Though he would much rather do this stuff than talk about it, maybe one day soon he’ll start a new blog, where he will most likely not write about himself in third person. You can follow him @darrenprince

Don’t forget to come back tomorrow for installment #2 of Darren’s post!

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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