More than a decade ago now, my husband, Mike, spent almost two years working in Uganda. During that time, Mike was shadowed for a week by a National Geographic photographer as he went about his work.
When the issue came out, the online feature was titled Hope in Hell: The reach of humanitarian aid. One of the photos illustrating this article features Mike. In it, he is a six-foot-tall white beacon surrounded by dozens of children all reaching for him. He has his arm out, passing something into one of the waiting hands while scores of others clutch at him. The sea of cupped palms is very dark against the pristine blaze of his T-shirt, and Mike’s expression is difficult to read. His eyes are fixed on the one hand he’s grasping, but his forehead is lined, his eyebrows tipped up toward each other in a small, worried salute.
Representing hope in hell did not look like an easy gig.
I first saw this photo before Mike and I ever met–back when he was living in Papua New Guinea and I was living in Los Angeles, when we were taking the first, cautious step towards a long distance relationship by writing dozens of letters to each other.
“I’ve been circling back to this topic of hope a lot lately, but I haven’t even come close to figuring it out,” I wrote to Mike after reading his letter about the National Geographic article.
“What is hope?” I wrote. “Can hope exist independently of something to place that hope in, some larger external source, or framework? Joy seems simpler to me, and being joyful in life is something I feel I have a better handle on than being hopeful. But hope – it’s a puzzle.”
Then I sent Mike an essay I had written called Hope Chases Us, a piece about a benefit dinner I had recently attended in LA.
What do you wear when you’re going to spend the evening learning about sex slavery?
This was only one of the many important questions in life that I didn’t have a good answer for on Saturday. Two hours before I was due at a benefit dinner for International Justice Mission, I was staring into my closet at a loss.
A black dress and boots doesn’t work. I love these boots. They’re the most extravagant pair of shoes I’ve ever bought – knee-high, buttery, black leather with mini-stiletto heels. But leather-clad calves and dark draped curves feel too vamp to me. A suit and jacket seems too clinical. What I really want to wear, jeans, is too casual. In the end I go for international eclectic – a blue cotton shirt from India over black pants, embroidered platform shoes from Malaysia, and a silver Orthodox cross from Ethiopia…
It’s been two hundred years since the first abolition act was passed that made it unlawful for British subjects to capture and transport human beings, yet there are still about twenty five million people in the world today who are being held as slaves. That’s almost twice the number trafficked from Africa during the entire four hundred years of the transatlantic slave trade. The buying and selling of people is now the world’s second-most lucrative illegal profession, outranked only by the global trade in illegal arms.
Twenty five million is a number so large it defies comprehension. It’s more than the entire population of Australia. Who are they, and where?
They are Cambodian men trafficked to Thailand to work on construction projects. They are Yemeni children smuggled into Saudi Arabia to work as street beggars. They are children from Mali working on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast.
To bring this slightly closer to home, the Ivory Coast holds forty-three percent of the world’s market in cocoa, and the USA is the world’s largest chocolate consumer.
To bring it closer still, the U.S. government estimates that about fifty-thousand women and children are trafficked into the United States every year for sweatshop labor, domestic servitude, or the sex trade.
…I pull up behind a shiny Corvette at the Millennium Biltmore and hand my keys to the valet. I am ashamed that after several recent stints in airport parking lots my car is filthy, and then proud that I do not own a Corvette. I’m ashamed, again, at the self-righteousness I recognize shadowing this thought. Then I am proud of my own humility.
I am only distracted from these mental gymnastics by the grandeur of the hotel lobby – acres of marble, ornate columns, and gilded ceilings…
The program that I am handed as I enter the event informs me that, for this evening at least, I am a 17-year-old girl named Panida from a hill tribe in Thailand. When I was twelve, my family sent me off with a man who visited my village and promised that if I came to work in his cigarette factory my earnings would be enough to support the rest of the family. He lied. I ended up in a brothel, where I worked for three years before I was rescued.
…I sip an apple martini. It is cold and sweet against my glossed lips – the bite of spirits cloaked by gentle green. A maraschino promise glows red from the bottom of the glass. I wonder whether Panida likes martinis. Then I remember she’s still too young to drink…
The walls of the ballroom are lined by carved pillars. An enormous chandelier hangs like an inverted wedding cake from the ceiling, four tiers of crystal falling toward the floor like a ballet of raindrops. At our table there doesn’t seem to be enough space for all the cutlery and accoutrements: two wine glasses, bread, individual pats of butter, our own personal dessert platters, and salads of braised pears and honeyed pecans.
Staff members from International Justice Mission mount the stage. They speak of modern-day slavery with a facility honed by years of witnessing what generally happens when power operates for too long in an accountability vacuum. Laws are just words on paper, the speakers say, until they are made reality in the lives of the vulnerable. And the vulnerable are just statistics until there are faces and stories to put to the violations.
Grainy black-and-white footage of brothel raids taken from hidden surveillance cameras is projected onto a large screen behind the stage. We see dozens of Panidas in seedy rooms, awaiting customers. A ragged toy perched neatly on a bed is a heartbreaking symbol of one little girl’s attempt to preserve some tattered remnant of a stolen childhood.
…Dessert taunts me all through dinner and in the end I don’t know which to start with. The small round of raspberry cheesecake, the brandy-snap basket filled with cream and strawberries, or the chocolate truffle? My carefully chosen black pants feel too tight…
It is too easy to simply showcase the irony of dining on steak and chicken while these videos play. Too easy to only raise an eyebrow at the fact that a mere twenty-one percent of my expensive ticket for the event actually went to the charity. But I am reminded of a familiar biblical admonition to look first to the log in my own eye. I am the one who owns so many clothes that I can spend half an hour deciding what to wear. I am the one with enough disposable income to afford the ticket in the first place. And I’m now the one responsible for how I respond to the information that’s being served to me on a silver platter right alongside three types of dessert.
The statement that catches me most off guard during the night is spoken near the end of the evening. It isn’t the shocking statistic that the trafficking of women and children for sex brings in more money annually than the entire Microsoft empire. It’s just six brave words.
“Hope chases us in this work.”
During the last eight years of my life – in prisons, in orphanages for abused children, in villages gutted by war and studded with landmines – I’d been granted glimpses into lives where cruelty, desperation, and grief had become normal. If you look too deep into the heart of that reality for too long, it is profoundly overwhelming. Over time it’s easy for cynicism to become a habit, even a refuge. It is tempting to rest in the numb embrace of a fatalistic paralysis.
…That night I dream of Rwanda, a place I haven’t yet been. After the benefit dinner I was up until one reading a book with the unforgettable title of Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures. I know better than to read this sort of stuff late at night. The tale is as raw as the title – three former U.N. workers detailing the savaging of their humanitarian ideals by successive missions to conflict zones. Their increasingly desperate disenchantment as the story unfolds is mesmerizing and excruciating, and the dreams this story grants me are black and white and full of mass graves and machetes…
Hope chases us.
Sometimes it seems that hope could do with a lengthy course of steroids. Perhaps then it might stand a fighting chance in the footrace with despair.
But on a good day I can be anchored by remembering the story of the good Samaritan. In the instant the Samaritan walked past the wounded man lying in the ditch, he was not being called to hire and train a police force to escort travelers, hunt down the brigands and see them bought to trial (complete with defense attorneys) or single-handedly transform the entire Jericho road into a bastion of safety. He is lauded because he stopped to help the one.
My namesake for the evening, Panida, had lived within the borders of Thailand her entire life, but because she came from a hill-tribe minority group, she had never been recognized as a citizen. Two years after she was rescued from the brothel she finally received a Thai passport and, with it, some legally defensible rights. Her smile as she was pictured holding up her passport spilled joy and hope into a ballroom eight thousand miles from where she lived – hope that it is worth trying to make a difference one life at a time.
I’ve been in California this past week, not the brothels of Thailand or the hills of Rwanda. Stopping for one wasn’t climbing into the ditch to haul out the wounded, rescuing a Panida, or picking up a scalpel. It was meeting a friend for breakfast, returning a phone call, and writing a check.
Cynicism is the wide path of least resistance, and hope never seems to find me when I’m on that track. But when I’m most often surprised by hope’s companionship is also not when I’m trotting full speed down the road to Jericho. It’s when, by my all-too-human standards, I’m not really making much progress at all.
It’s when I pause to see others’ love in action, helping liberate people from slavery and its usual breeding ground, poverty.
When I’ve stopped for beauty – flowers, music, mountains, sunsets, great stories, amazing food, and the peaceful hush of a summer evening.
And when I’ve stopped for one.
“Hope chasing us,” Mike wrote to me the day after I sent him the letter.
“What a beautiful, precious image. Thanks for the reminder about guarding against cynicism. I really like how you didn’t cheapen it into the standard ‘I feel guilty because of all the ironies’ essay,” Mike replied.
“Do you feel chased by hope?” he continued. “I don’t most times. But I think that sometimes hope sneaks up on us when we’re wallowing in a dark, dark place and bursts into the room holding a giant candle and says, ‘Surprise! You forgot about me. But I haven’t forgotten you! I found the ending a bit abrupt, but I don’t know how I’d end it.”
“Frankly, I’m not sure about the ending.” I wrote back. “It’s interesting that you said it was abrupt. My main problem with it is that I’m not entirely sure I understand or mean what I’ve written in those last couple of lines. I know they’re beautiful and all. But do I really feel hope when I’ve stopped for one? Or am I more often feeling impatient because my schedule’s been thrown off, or helpless because I’m not sure how to help that one, or simply feeling … nothing … because I’m looking too far forward and haven’t stopped to notice the moment?”
“I love the image of hope chasing us, love it,” I finished. “But putting into words what that actually means for me – that’s different. I think I partially succeeded in that essay, but only partially…”
[excerpted from Love At The Speed Of Email]
I share this here today because, eight years later, this is still something I think about. And I suspect I am not the only one. A life overseas forces you to confront many ironies, injustices, deprivations, and desperations. It can clarify your hopes, and the source of those hopes. It can also cloud and confuse.
So I would love to hear from you on this.
Do you find it easy to feel and hang onto hope?
What gives you hope?