Thursday, May 26, 2011

it's where i live

“It’s where I live. I mean, I’m not someone who flies into a place and then leaves it again. I actually live in these areas… And so it’s a different kind of experience.” - Lourdes Garcia Navarro, NPR reporter

Growing up, I attended a Mennonite church in a rural area outside of Philadelphia. Every Palm Sunday and summer, a group of children and a few adults from a Mennonite church in the city would visit us. This group of mostly African American kids was accompanied by Ms. Darlene, the children’s minister at that church. Ms. Darlene was a short, white woman who always dressed in a long, modest skirt, a loose blouse, and white tennis shoes. Her hair was pinned up in the same loose bun with messy tendrils hanging down — a suggestion of her simplicity, not stylishness. She had a strong voice with which she made Bible stories jump off felt boards and into real life, and her singing was loud and sure. The church was located in a poor, mostly minority neighborhood, and that’s where she made her home even though it was dangerous, especially for someone who stuck out like she did. She once told a story about being attacked by men who attempted to rape her. When she prayed, they stopped.

Ms. Darlene was my unnamed inspiration, I think, when at the end of high school I decided I would be a social worker. My college application process was shaped by the goal: I applied to colleges only in Pennsylvania so that I could practice social work and possibly get a Master’s Degree under the state’s accreditation. And I wanted no debt — social workers don’t make much money — so I chose a public university. Throughout my studies, I imagined myself a scruffy, white single woman (because that’s who social workers are, right?) living in the inner city, seeing lives transformed, though by what, I’m not sure I knew at the time.

After college, I began seeing how difficult social work was for me. Being with people required a lot of energy, and even more so when those people are messy and needy. I was often overwhelmed by situations I encountered and felt helpless and angry most of the time, though I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) have articulated that then. And I need concrete signs of progress or completion to feel accomplished, which come infrequently when working with people.

What’s more, other, more pressing dreams were rising to the surface, and the life I’d assumed I’d live as a social worker wasn’t matching up to these. I wanted to be married, that’s for sure, and the messy bun and sneakers with a skirt aren’t exactly my style. And then there was writing, which I liked to enjoy from a distance but was too afraid to think I could do it, too.

And even if I could write, what about racial reconciliation and being cross-cultural and God’s love for the poor — all the values I’d spent my college and post-college years championing and (gasp) basing my relationship with God on? Who was I without these things? I couldn't imagine how writing could give them as central a place as I'd been taught to believe they should have.

Thankfully, I am on my way to understanding that being a social worker isn’t the only way to love God or help people. The decision to write has been largely based on gut instinct, following joy, and asking God about my desires. Giving myself to it, I’ve found a path waiting for me where, along the way, I am being offered things I’d given up, like a way to help people, extend relationship and explore the meaning of their experiences.

Many journalists and writers have chosen the profession because they feel compelled to find meaning and dignity in human experiences. This compulsion leads to where few others are going. And it leads to connections with people whose voices we need to hear.

If you’re still with me, here’s where the real treat comes in. On my drive to work I listened to this short interview with a journalist who covers news in the Middle East. It’s a short interview, so I encourage you to give a listen. I love her approach to journalism (as well as her obvious passion for it). My favorite parts are where she talks about going where others aren't going because that's where the story is, and about making her home where she is reporting. To me, her choice is an expression of her deep value for relationships with people and for giving words to their stories.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about the interview, calling, or any other ideas this brings to you.

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