“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together. ”— Lill Watson, aboriginal activist
I asked myself this question, while reading When Helping Hurts on the plane on my way to Moldova last weekend. What are my true motives?
Here’s what I wrote in my journal: “I know what it’s like to be stuck,
to feel powerless,
not to have access.”
But how, you might ask? How, if I am a privileged woman, living in Canada with a loving husband, three children, a dog, a computer, high-speed Internet, a credit card and an iphone?
My privilege goes back to the day I was born as a white Afrikaner baby girl in Apartheid South Africa. It’s my old story, yes, but it has framed how I see and understand the world. From the depths of my own soul, I learned that freedom is not indivisible. We cannot take freedom away from others and expect to keep it for ourselves. Freedom doesn’t work like that. Freedom needs room to breathe and when we close in the walls on others, when we erect walls and prisons and separate townships and unjust economic systems, it’s not possible to breathe through the injustice and oppression without taking in big gulps of it for ourselves. We become what we inflict. And our sons and daughters will suffer that which we inflict on others; maybe not externally, but certainly in their souls.
I once reported on a story in Taiwan where 27 tigers were kept in captivity. Small containers with bars on the front and I remember watching the tigers pace listlessly up and down their small containers. They looked like tigers–big heads, soft fur, huge paws-but the animals contained in those small boxes were defeated shadows of the glorious creatures they were meant to be.
I used to feel exactly like those tigers: contained, isolated, stuck, diminished, powerless, defeated.
It’s taken many years of listening prayer, pressing in to God and doing the hard work to now roam more freely. But I simply can’t forget where I come from. I can’t deny my story and I can’t forget what God has done in my life. I dare not forget that my freedom–and my children’s freedom–are tied up in the freedom of others, whether it’s choosing fair trade chocolate or teaching them not to say, “I am starving,” when they don’t truly comprehend what that means.
So, as you might know, I found myself in Moldova all last week with nine other women, learning about the work of Beginning of Life (BoL), a Christian NGO that helps to restore women who have suffered social injustices, including human trafficking, abuse and poverty.
We learned that:
– According to the United Nations, Moldova is the poorest country in Europe.
– It has the highest percentage of victims of human trafficking.
We started our week with the girls at BoL’s rehab and reintegration centre, sitting around a ping-pong table, learning to crochet under the guidance of crochet rockstar and teammate Alise Wright.
As the days passed, we shared short conversations and broken sentences. We held the girls’ babies and their hands. We sat with them, eating pizza and plăcintă (the local flatbread with sheep’s cheese, feta, spinach, apple or sour cherries.) We drank Sprite and strong black tea.
Five days later, our week was over and we were slugging through two feet of snow to our final farewell party at the “white house,” the building at the back of the rehabilitation and reintegration centres for the girls. We waited outside, while the girls prepped inside to give us a proper Moldovan welcome. This was the moment where I just wanted to hit pause, especially when I saw the two girls in the doorway, dressed in traditional Moldovan clothes: one holding a white, round loaf of bread; the other a bowl with salt.
As I broke off a piece of bread, my heart remembered: This is my body, broken for you …
Dip and eat, motioned the girl with the salt.
You are the salt of the earth …
It’s our Moldovan custom, they told us. This message of communion and this remembrance of our call—to be salt to this earth—embroidered into the fabric of Moldovan society. It was almost too much to take in.
Who am I, a stranger, really, to be taken in like this? To be welcomed into both the brokenness and the joy by sharing from this same loaf of our humanity?
We sat down and gathered our hearts for a moment. This was goodbye, but the sadness could wait. First, party. Then the girls invited us into a large circle to dance and for the rest of the afternoon, there were stunted starts, polka steps and so much laughter.
How different was this laughter and lightness from the stories we’d heard that week.
Of how Anna* was raped when she was eight.
How her mother then sold her to men in the village.
How she was taken to an orphanage, so she would be cared for.
But how the orphanage director then groomed her and eventually pimped her.
How another orphanage alerted the state and how she was finally rescued and brought to Beginning of Life.
Of how angry and aggressive she was and of how she left to go stay with her boyfriend, saying, “I want to live my own life.”
How a few months later she became pregnant and her boyfriend made her choose between him and the baby.
Of how the doctor told her if she had an abortion, she might never have another baby. So she decided to keep her.
And of how she called the BoL centre, asking if she could pick up some of her clothes that she’d left there.
And how Julia, the BoL founder, saw her and ran to her and hugged her.
“Why are you so happy to see me?” Anna asked her.
“We didn’t know where you were,” Julia told her.
Anna then asked if she would be allowed back. This time Anna’s life began to change.
She birthed her beautiful baby girl and Anna was even baptized last year.
Her story is one of a powerful transformation, yes. But what struck me this past week, however, was how she–and every girl I met–is so much more than a one-dimensional story. When I tell the story of her pain, I am still not sharing her story in full colour. I am not offering the details of her hopes and dreams, her idiosyncrasies, her long dark ponytail. I am not telling you about how she holds her daughter above her head and how much her little girl loves to watch the world sitting on her mama’s neck and shoulders.
My liberation this trip, wasn’t in recognizing how we are the same. This time, it was in seeing each and every girl in full colour. We know there’s a bigger story of slavery and injustice, but these girls–these flesh and blood girls–were each so adorably unique. Each girl with her own unique interests, unique hairstyle, unique way of dressing, unique personality, unique smile, unique story. Not one of them a one-dimensional, single storied “victim of human trafficking.” These girls were teaching me to see them as ordinary girls–not as victims or to be pitied. Instead, I could see them as the girls-next-door, nieces, daughters and friends. And I wanted so much more than rescue for them. I wanted restoration and a big, beautiful life for them.
As I watched those two girls welcoming us at the door, they were no longer defined by their old stories. Their smiles were open, even mischievous. Free.
The girls didn’t need us for their liberation. But we were all becoming a little more liberated together.
So, if you ask me why do I go and why do I keep going? I imagine it as this circle of freedom:
Or: to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr.: I know my destiny is tied up in the destiny of women and girls, like the ones in Moldova. I have come to realize that my freedom is inextricably bound to their freedom.
“We cannot walk alone.”
We are kicking off the month today with our new theme, “Free.” I hope you will join us, so we can journey together and become part of each other’s liberation. Your comments and encouragement matter so much.
Also, we’d love for you to share some of your journey with us this month–add a picture, showing yourself as “free” on our Facebook page. Or tag and tweet us with your favorite free/freedom quotes.