5.27.2014

Blogger Trips Make (Dollars &) Sense.

It seems like there have been a bunch of those “blogger trips” announced recently. There's practically another big trip packed with “famous” *eye roll* bloggers heading to a different third world country every other week. Maybe you've also noticed that these trips are starting to get a fair amount of pushback. 

The idea of comfortable American writers zipping off to distant parts of the world in the name of storytelling is starting to raise some hackles. I get that. I totally do. The first time I was approached to participate in a “blogger trip” to fly to a another country in order to see their work and write about it, I was like, “Nope.”

I had seen too much garbage in the NGO world and I had spoken out loudly against it. I was leery of spending that kind of cash on airfare for a blogger when I know very well what a dollar can do in the hands of the impoverished. I was openly skeptical of “work” being done by rich americans in developing nations, and I was angry over the suburban-hero complex we see pouring out of the U.S. year after year. Not to mention, appalled, grossed out, and sort of enraged by the billions of dollars spent on trips that often result in no more than a costly ego boost for well-meaning tourists, taken at the emotional expense of the poor.

If I'm being really, really honest? I was kind of worried about what you would think.

Since I have vocally opposed aspects of short-term missions trips and shoddy humanitarian aid, it could easily come off as contradictory for me to then hop on a plane and fly across the world in partnership with a non-profit I knew little about. The word “hypocrite” came to mind, so it was pretty easy for me to decline the first invite. I said no because I was genuinely afraid of becoming a participant in wasteful self-congratulation disguised as “blessing” and “caring for those less fortunate”. ...Ew. No, thank you, I'll stay home.

But, as much as I have spoken into how we're doing it wrong (and I do think we're doing, like, omg so much of it wrong), I've never stopped believing that there are better ways to engage the world, and that, yes, those of us who hold power and wealth have a responsibility to those who hold neither. Because of that, over the last couple of years I've taken an interest in finding and partnering with organizations I believe are doing meaningful work with transparency, intelligence, and financial accountability.

So when the official invite came, instead of blowing it off, I did some homework. I vetted the organization, asked questions, researched the issues, and took a long hard look at the expense of my trip versus the expectation of my role. Why was I going and what would it accomplish? After having seen all kinds of missionaries and NGO's at work with my own skeptical judgey eyeballs, I've become a huge proponent of ditching the volunteer model, in favor of choosing the people we send into the world with reason and forethought. That said, I had to ask my own cringey self if I actually had a particular set of skills that would prove beneficial to the organization I was joining hands with and the people they serve.

If I flew halfway across the planet, would a cost-benefit analysis have a favorable outcome for the Exodus Road? I decided, in the end, that I would go only as a storyteller and I would go only if telling the story would have real, tangible value.

I would not go as missionary, I would not call it a missions trip, and I would not pretend I was doing something I wasn't actually doing...like, say, helping. Or blessing. Or “loving on people”.(Ugh. I hate that phrase. Can we please stop saying it?) I would go, I would listen, I would learn, and then? As asked, I would tell the story to the best of my ability to anyone who would read it.

In other words, I would market.

See, one of the things I learned through the vetting process is that most non-profits run off of donations and grants, and then I learned that the terms of a grant can be crazy specific, and then I learned that grant money can only be spent on the crazy specific stuff it was intended to be spent on. So when an NGO gets a grant for marketing, it has to be spent on marketing. Only marketing. Nothing else. Also? Budgetary audits keep them beholden to the bottom line; marketing money must go to marketing. That's just how it works.

Using a blogger with a wide audience for the purpose of sharing your work and marketing your brand is a pretty brilliant use of those earmarked dollars. I mean, B-rilliant. 

Blogger trips just make good business sense; It's a bang for your buck marketing strategy that has no rival. To use marketing dollars on roundtrip airfare for a blogger who will then share their experience with readers they've already built a relationship with, people with whom they already share a sort of kinship and like-mindedness is simply a smart, creative use of funds. I don't know about you, but I want to support organizations who make good choices, who leverage every dollar, who choose low overhead and minimal cost marketing over glossy mass mailings and commercial advertisement, and that's exactly what blogger trips aim to do.

Case in point? I finally accepted their invitation last year and traveled to SE Asia with The Exodus Road. I came home and told the story, and in turn, through your generosity, raised many, many, many times the cost of my trip. The funds that came in – and are still coming in – from that trip have been crucial to the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of traffickers and abusers, and to the rescue of trafficking victims. (Aw, yeah! Go DELTA team!)

As tempting as it is to shrug off these trips as a bunch of pampered suburbanites traipsing the planet on somebody else's dime, they've become a hugely successful means of market distribution for NGO's, some of which are doing amazing, life-giving work in the world. The results speak volumes; Blogger trips make dollars, and that makes sense.

With so much waste, so much manipulation, so much crap coming out of the non-profit world, we need to get behind orgs with smart business tactics. We need to be supportive of good strategy. We need to encourage wise choices. We need to understand that even amazing, healthy, productive organizations cannot keep going without financial support, and, for that reason, we need to see how blogger trips are, quite simply, a wise investment. 

I'll continue to stand behind them... Um. And go on them. *ahem* 

........         ........         ........

Yes. I agree that there are still a lot of questions and concernes to be asked and answered about this kind of work. We need to see some honest, ongoing discussion surrounding ethical storytelling. We need to talk about how to care for the privacy and dignity of marginalized and/or victimized people in the midst of shedding light on the reality of their lives. We need to gently challenge each other when we see things from these blogger trips that make us feel...I don't know... oogy. (I've been called out, myself, and I'm grateful for the input.)

Essentially, as storytellers working on behalf of non-profits, we need your patience and we need your help as we learn to do it better. We don't always hit the mark, but I believe every one of us desires to share our stories with wisdom, care, and integrity, and to make them matter to the organizations we're serving with them.


5.14.2014

Not All Pastor's Kids Are Christian. Sorry.


It's been almost two years since we returned to the U.S, which is crazy because it feels like we were in Costa Rica yesterday (but like, if yesterday was also a million years ago). I can't believe it has been that long since we embarked on this latest segment of our journey, two years since El Chupacabra took on a new role and a new title and found himself in new place in the (weird, gross, false) hierarchy of the Church.

For two years he has been a “Pastor”. Well, his actual job title is “Director” but he's sort of known around these parts as the “pastor of outreach and missions”, so for all intents and purposes he is a pastor. Which, of course, makes me a pastor's wife (hilarious, I know!) and bestows upon our darling angelic children, who are also giant hairy men, the not so coveted position of Pastor's Kids. *sad trombone* Thankfully, this was not a huge shock to their system since they'd already been thrown into the fire as later-in-life Missionary Kids. They had a pretty good idea of what awaited them.

But there was one teeny tiny itty bitty awkward problem.

See. Not all of our kids identify themselves as Christian. They're not walkin' with the Lord, as we say it... y'know... In the business.

We have one kid who will stand in front of a crowd with a mic and a guitar and sing songs of worship and thanksgiving to the God he loves. And we have another who strongly questions the existence of that very same God. He's a pastor's kid who uses foul language, like doubtful and agnostic, and sometimes even claims the scarlet letter, yes, the BIG 'A'... (I'll give you a second to clutch your pearls...) 

...Atheist. 

GASP!!! What's a pastor to do?!

I don't really know, but I'll tell you what we did...

Before my husband started his job at the church, we sat down with all of our boys and had an honest conversation about our expectations of each of them as Pastor's Kids. We laid out the ground rules clearly. We told them exactly what we wanted to see from them and precisely how they were expected to behave, because we could not abide the embarrassment and disappointment of being “those parents”. You know who I'm talking about, the ones who raise kids who are afraid to just be themselves.

So first we told them to be honest, to tell the truth about who they are and where they're at with the whole God thing, always, even if it makes people uncomfortable. Even at youth group? Yup. Even on Easter? Yup. Even in front of church leaders? Yup. Even with creepy pastor groupies?...Especially then, son, especially then. This doesn't mean they go around throwing out personal information at inappropriate times, just that they have permission to speak freely when it's called for.

Then we told them to be open, to stay receptive to new ideas, and old ones, always, even if it makes them uncomfortable. This advice was not directed at any one child, but to all three, faithful or doubting, because it is too damn easy for us to settle on false ideas and call them Truth, even -and maybe especially - Biblical Truth. What's that one saying? “Don't believe everything you think.” ...Yeah, that. We could probably all benefit by practicing a little bit more of that kind of cognitive humility.

Last, we reminded them to honor their parents. And they do. They honor us with their challenging questions and their smart observations. They honor us by listening when we do our best to answer, and by understanding when we have no answers at all. They honor us by punctuating conversations that end in disagreement with respect and love, and they honor us by showing their character of deep conviction and brave stance. My doubter is remarkably full of grace for his parents who love Jesus, but so often fail to reflect His teaching at home, and we are honored to receive it.

We are so incredibly proud of the bright, thoughtful, courageous heathens we're raising. And while, as Christian parents, we cling to certain hopes and dreams for our children's faith and future, we trust that the God we believe in is near to them, fully present, and doing His thing. El Chupacabra and I are honestly very cool with the whole situation.

Some people want to be shocked and appalled by our utter lack of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. They think our kids need a good old-fashioned Bible thumping, and that we are driving them straight to the gates of hell with our nonchalance and free-wheelin' lifestyle. ...Meh. We're cool with that, too. You go ahead and be scandalized over something that is none of your damn business. We'll just be over here, loving our kids. 

We've noticed several times over our whole two years in the pastor gig that there's sort of an assumption that all Pastors Kids are Christian. Almost as if Faith were a genetically inherited trait, handed down from parent to child though tiny strands of DNA, like webbed fingers and detached earlobes, or that flippy thing some people can do with their tongue. Hell, maybe it is! But if that's the case, then Doubt must also be an inherent part of some of us, having been passed down on a cellular level. I could actually get behind that theory. The truth is, one of my sons was born trusting and gentle, welcoming anyone and everyone into his little heart, and he has believed in Jesus since he was, like, four or something ridiculous. The other was born a hard-shelled skeptic, taking in every detail of his environment before casting judgement or letting anyone in, and he has questioned the Jesus narrative since forever, even as a very, very small child.

My boys!! ...We're a blended family.
 But, like, on the inside. 
I don't know what causes one person to doubt while another believes. I certainly have some ideas as to how each of my kids have come to the conclusions about God they currently hold (I would have to take some of the blame). When I try to look at life from their unique perspective, I can see pretty easily how they've ended up where they have. These guys have had a lot to sift through, as we've moved them out of the country and back again, and they've each found different ways to cope and to thrive. If they haven't yet finished the task of figuring out who God is in relation to themselves, that's ok. They are allowed their process.

In the end, I want my kids to find their own faith, not inherit mine by default. (Anyway, mine is pretty janky. Surely, they can do better.

Let's be real though, I have no idea if we're doing the right thing. My younger boys are teenagers living at home, and the oldest is just about to blow this joint, so the jury's still out. But I do hope that by regarding our children's individuality and by allowing and engaging with them in the right-of-passage wrestling of souls, we are managing our family in a manner worthy of respect.

Believing in Jesus? Receiving His redemption? These are not commands to be given by a father and obeyed by a child. They are a loving invitation from God to his people, every last one of His people, and He is patiently awaiting their reply...

Pastor's kids are people, too. 

But sometimes they're not Christian people. 

.....       .....       .....

Christian parents: Are your kids "walking' with the Lord?"
Kids of Christian parents: ... Um... Sorry. We really are doing our stupid best. 

5.06.2014

Life is weird and it doesn't make sense.

My life is getting kind of weird.

That is not a complaint! I think weird is good. I'm a fan of weird. In fact, I'm really grateful for this weird-good life and I would never want anyone to think I'm unhappy with the path I've landed on. I am definitely not complaining (TOTALLY NOT COMPLAINING, GOD!), but there are things that trouble me. There are areas of life I'm having a hard time getting my head around. I'm struggling to reconcile certain aspects of my existence which seem blatantly opposed to each other. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to bring these parts of who I am and what I do together in a way that makes sense, but I can't stop thinking about it. I just. I don't even know. 

So here are some things...

Last year, I got to travel to all over the place in the name of Justice. Seriously. I was invited all over the world to speak about it, write about it, fight for it, and invest in it. I did my best to see clearly, discern carefully, and, with as much reverence and respect as possible for the victims of injustice, I became a firsthand witness to some of the atrocities that are occurring in our world. Everywhere I went, I did my best to advocate on behalf of the victimized and vulnerable men, women, and children I've crossed paths with. My great hope is that every trip I go on will actually matter, that it will really, truly help the people they claim to help... I want to have a stake in making the world a better, safer, freer place for everyone.

Last month, I was in LA on the set of a super cool movie, meeting actors and reading scripts, and eating an incredible meal that seemed to just appear in the desert, as if out of nowhere. The meal brought a foreign chef with a real accent, wearing one of those chef jackets that doubles as Kung-fu attire (super handy for when you're making gazpacho and suddenly find yourself in a Fists of Fury type situation). I was honestly moved by the story the film crew was building, and I felt honored to be present for a small part of that process. I've never been a cheerleader for faith-based films because of their history of sucking ass, but I really do believe this particular film could be a catalyst for good, hard conversations that challenge our theology and stretch our picture of God.

Two weeks ago, I went to Colorado where I was honored to play emcee at a fancy fundraiser for a coalition ofnon-profit organizations entrenched in the battle against slavery and human-trafficking. I wore a pair of wicked heels for like 7 hours straight because I believe in making sacrifices for others, and everybody knows it's not a sacrifice unless it hurts. *eye roll* The team effort was tremendous and, thankfully, the dinner was a smashing success! I can't wait to see how it pays off in big ways to help empower rescue and restore lives over the coming year.

Last week, I scored tickets to a screening of The Amazing Spiderman 2 because I'm a baller a blogger. I walked my super amped nerd-kids past a snaking line of Spider Man enthusiasts, Marvel geeks with neck-beards, a couple of furries, and several dudes with ponytails, to tell a guy at the door,“I'm on the list.” When he escorted us right in, my boys looked at me with a kind of awe and reverence I've always demanded from them, but never received. Finally! Their smiles said, “It is my greatest privilege to be this woman's child!” We were directed to sit in the rows saved for special people, like Kings and Queens and DJ's, and Movie Reviewers, and Presidents. I sat there in the chilly theater with popcorn and peanut m&m's in my lap, watching a movie I loved with people I love, and I felt deeply satisfied. It made me happy to see them happy. But the best part was to see two of my boys – the two who wrestle with ideas about God and faith and their own worth – feeling loved and favored, and seeing themselves as special and set-apart, but still part of something much bigger. (What can I say? I love a good metaphor.)

Right now? I'm sitting in bed, still in my pajamas, sipping hot coffee and writing about my weird-good life. It's 11:42 am. I haven't eaten breakfast because, when I went downstairs to rummage through the fridge and cupboards, I couldn't decide what I wanted - too many choices. I declined a friend's invite to the gym because I needed to get some work done, and in a few minutes when I'm done “working”, I'll fill out my kids registration packets for the next school year with a huff of irritation at the inconvenience of having to use an actual pen to write actual words, like, with my hand.

And there it is.

This pendulum swings back and forth between awesome and ordinary, purpose and profit, fun and fundraising, selfishness and sacrifice, necessity and luxury, hard and easy, me and family, and on and on and on - sometimes going from one extreme to the other in a matter of seconds.


I cry for the end of slavery on Monday night and paint my toenails on Tuesday morning.

I raise money for non-profits and spend money on a non-fat lattes.

I'm pretty sure I've stood up and spoken passionately about social justice while wearing clothes that were made by children in sweat shops. What? Yes.

And I believe I can see the hand of God at work as clearly in the back of a dark theater at the bottom of a bucket of popcorn as I do at the front of the Church or the foot of the Slave.

Back and forth, back and forth. The world keeps rushing by, a blurred streaky mess, filled with offers and opportunities and enticing engagements. From Asia to LA, from the suburbs to the strip clubs, from the blog to the bathroom and back again, I ride the pendulum, dazed and confused. I'm trying so hard to reconcile the gross with the good, that sometimes I forget to look, instead, for the still, unmoving places, smooth spots in the landscape of life where God can be seen clearly. It's only when I see Him in the chaos and confusion that I find clarity and rest.

Don't get me wrong, life still doesn't make sense. Like, at all. 

Try as I might, I can't seem to put it all together in a nice neat package. But maybe that's because I've been trying to make vanity and materialism fit neatly into my life, right next to selflessness and generosity. Maybe I shouldn't want arrogance smooshed up against humility, or ignorance tucked in with wisdom. Perhaps anger wasn't supposed to be given a spot with Grace at all. 

The opposite ends of a pendulum aren't meant to come together. They never were. 

So maybe I should stop trying so hard and just...I don't know...  Go with it? 

.......

Do you ever look at your life and think, "WHAT IS HAPPENING?!". ... No? Just me? Ok. Carry on, then.