I Don’t Know How to Tell this Story

Which is ironic, since I’m supposedly the journalist in the Middle East, intrepid and articulate, spinning narrative for a living.

OK.
Hi.
My name is Alice and I live in Amman, Jordan. I graduated from the Woodrow Wilson School in June 2013 with a certificate in Near Eastern Studies. I’d written a thesis on Sino-U.S. soft power competition in Egypt, aka an excuse to indulge in Chinese/Arabic and get funding to traipse around Beijing, Cairo and D.C. My adviser was a former U.S. Ambassador, and I harbored vaguely fancy dreams of working at the intersection of journalism and diplomacy, bringing the public back into public diplomacy by helping Chinese, Arab and Western media spheres to talk to, not at, one another (so I wrote on my Rhodes application, ha).

I spent two months after graduation in Oman, studying intensive Arabic on a scholarship from the State Department. Then I moved here to intern unpaid at a Jordanian news network, translating reports and helping with a program that trains Syrian and Palestinian refugees to be citizen journalists. I had $10,000 of personal savings that I’d decided I could spend if Jesus wanted me to come to Jordan, and I hoped to find some kind of part-time job on the side. That would be enough to stay a year, insha’allah, which was fine! Even though I didn’t really like the Middle East and remembered losing 7 pounds from food poisoning and being harassed on the streets every day when I was in Morocco two years earlier, I was going to come, based mostly on the intense heart-gripping “I MUST COME HERE I MUST GO” feelings I had whenever I seriously prayed about it.

I moved to Jordan like a psycho because I thought God wanted me to – and because I was interested in refugee policy, journalism and Arabic, and this unpaid project had dropped from the sky with all my interests rolled into one (another story for later). I started volunteering with a Jesuit group, teaching English literacy on weeknights to some 40 adult refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Palestine, Syria and Iraq. I sent out journalism pitches too, cold emailing story ideas to editors without expecting any reply.

To my surprise, they took my ideas. Better yet, they paid! I wrote a story for the Atlantic about a Chinese product fair, then one for Columbia Journalism Review on Syrian journalists, then another for Al-Monitor on Islamist dissent. I went to Palestine for a WIRED profile on this guy who’d hacked Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook. One day, the Guardian called me asking for coverage of a terrorist trial. By Christmas, I’d published 12-13 stories on refugees, nuclear programs and protests. I’d made more than enough to cover my rent and food. I never had to dip into my $10,000, and people were asking me for pitching advice.

But listen. Friends. I’m not some path blazer who went out and “made it” as a freelancer. I am no change maker writing stories that stir hearts and inspire action. I am just here. I try to be all here. Mostly, I feel very small.

The scary yet good thing about being in the Middle East is that Death stares me in the face. I spend much of my time with refugees. Many of my friends are from Darfur, Iraq or Syria. They tell me about their brothers being tortured in jail, knives twisting into their guts. They say, my husband was kidnapped by extremists, or I don’t know if my mother is alive, or I watched my baby burn. I see our world and it’s splattered with blood. I want to look away but I can’t. Sometimes I want to get a flight and just leave, peace out, go back to my comfort bubble and pretend I never came to Jordan or had to deal with the reality of everything here.

Or I grit my teeth and think, I’ll write a story about this! If I just write a really good story, things will change. Maybe a few stories. A book! A book, and I will save the world. My Princeton self is prone to the delusion that life is basically under control. If I try hard enough at anything, I can make it happen. When things are beyond me, that just means I haven’t tried hard enough. I drive harder. Push more.

Eventually I had to stop. Girl. Who are you kidding? You think your book will end war in Sudan? And Syria? And Iraq? And everywhere in the world once and for all?

Many people think journalism is a magical tool that can humanize foreign policy, bring faces and voices back into our understanding of faraway wars, show the world that we are all ONE brotherhood and that it is foolish, ridiculous, dark and dirty and wrong to hate and kill one another. Many people think we can use journalism to make a difference.

The question Jesus asked me this year, quietly, gently, was:
What if it doesn’t?

One morning I woke up at 5 a.m. and cried for 3 hours. I was gasping from a nightmare, head and heart swirling from too many stories too many people had told me of too much hunger and pain. That’s when I realized it was silly to pretend that I’m not sad. I am sad, I prayed. Jesus, damn it, I am sad.

Suddenly honesty was howling from my veins. GOD. YOUR CHILDREN ARE DROWNING. GOD! I cried like a lunatic. I prayed without words. I felt like the very bottom of my heart had dropped out, turned into a cavern, flooding and splitting with a cry, GOD. Save us. We are crumbling, twisted, poisoned, struck – Jesus! Lord, SAVE.

Two things happened when I prayed that morning:
a) I stopped being in denial about the world.
b) I stopped trying to save it – and found hope in doing so. When I stopped trying so hard, I was suddenly, freakishly, unnaturally able to hope.

Journalism has taught me that in the Gospel, effort doesn’t save.

More importantly, it’s taught me that I don’t save.

Let me share this video with you. It’s from an amazing thing that happened when I wrote a story about my Sudanese friends: kind-hearted Americans across the world read my article, started a fundraising campaign and sent more than $5000 to help them. I went out with the Sudanese community leader and bought heaters for ~900 members of the refugee community here.

It’s beautiful, right? I was so moved when this happened. I cried. It was incredible, the kind of impact journalism I’d always dreamed of.

But I’m under no delusion. War goes on. My friends remain refugees, mistreated and forgotten, the system rigged against them for no particular reason at all. A heater is great,  but it’s a fist-sized sponge trying to sop up an ocean of need. My results-oriented self cringes, annoyed at its insufficiency, and looks for a way to leave.

My LORD says, Hush. Beloved. Stay.

I am terrified to love people when I feel like I can’t take them out of their suffering. Yet Jesus is teaching me this, to love without saving. I’m learning to accompany, to just be a friend and sister, to say I have no solutions for your problems, but I’ll stick with you anyway. I’m learning to love even when I can’t make pain stop. I’m learning, I think, to just carry pain alongside my brothers.

The tearful-lunatic-prayer thing has only grown, not stopped – but it always ends in praise. It always ends in hope, inexplicable but firm. I feel like I know God more because of it, like I know the Gospel better as a message not that pain has gone from the world, but that God loved us enough to come and bear pain alongside us. Maybe all He wants us to do is love each other enough to do likewise. Instead of straining to stop suffering, we step into it, offer a shoulder, we say, Dear friend, I can’t save you, but
I’m here,
I care,
I’m listening.

Tell me your story.

You are not alone.

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Why This Blog is Ultimately About Grace

I used to be shy. I saw little reason for talking when I didn’t believe in the interestingness of my own story. What had I to offer that the world had not already seen, or heard?

I grew up in the suburbs of San Diego, where buildings all took on a stucco-ed squareness, the most interesting foliage was desert brush, and even the weather, though nice, seemed drab in its consistent niceness. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to be in the future, but that dream seemed so damningly stereotypical: Korean guy with glasses pursues MD, wants to save lives.

Every now and then when I’m bored, I re-read my college application essays and laugh mockingly at my former self.  A sense of bemusement sets in – how did I get into Princeton? How did these jumble of letters and lackluster narrative get me into one of the most prestigious institutions in the country? I honestly don’t know.

College was somewhat of a personal crisis, simply because I was forced to confront my shyness with unexpected intimacy. My roommates freshman year included a former president of the National Junior Classical League (who had his own Facebook fan page), a gifted musician who learned to play the piano by ear and had more neckties in his closet than I had clothes, and an Indian guy who, I’m still convinced, was using his goofiness to hide his true identity as Indian royalty. I had friends who studied abroad in Oxford and walked its storied, Gothic halls. Then there was always that senior in precept who knew everything about everything. In retrospect, many of my pursuits in college was nothing but a relentless game of catch-up to an imaginary, better man. I learned Swahili, traveled to Kenya and Tanzania, took on the only competitive major at Princeton to study public policy, and wrote a thesis on HIV/AIDS, partly out of genuine interest for those things, but also partly, I confess, out of a subconscious desire to have better stories to tell.

This, of course, was a remarkably tiring way to go about life – and a lonely one, too. The problem was not that my story seemed uninteresting or typical, and needed some embellishment through the pursuit of some crazy vision or ideal. The real, deeper problem, the pig beneath the lipstick, was that my story is all I saw.

I first heard about Lawndale Christian Health Center around the beginning of my senior year, and it waved like a checkered flag ushering the end of this futile race. I was in the midst of the run-of-the-mill Princeton senior activities then, applying for jobs and academic scholarships.  I can’t quite explain it, much as a moth can’t explain why it is so persistently drawn to a source of light. When I found out about Lawndale, I rescinded my outstanding applications that would have led me elsewhere. I left my nets.

In retrospect, I think it was how miraculous the Lawndale story seemed. Wayne Gordon, a graduate of Wheaton college, leaves his suburban Iowa home to become a high school wrestling and football coach in a marginalized neighborhood in Chicago. His students ask him to join, then lead, a Bible study. That Bible study snowballs into a church, and that church, driven by the students’ desire to love and serve their neighbors, begins a health center providing access to care for the poor and the uninsured. That was 1984 – when the health center was no more than a couple of idealistic doctors practicing in three decrepit exam rooms fashioned out of an abandoned car lot. Now, the health center has four sites on the West Side, and serves over 200,000 patients a year. It even has a state-of-the-art fitness center (for $15 a month!) and a cozy cafe.

Wayne Gordon (or, “Coach”) is still around, and I have the blessing of being a part of his weekly men’s Bible study. Some of the men there are students he used to coach nearly 40 years ago. Others are health center workers, like me. A majority of them are graduates of Lawndale Community Church’s Hope House, a rehabilitation center for formerly addicted or incarcerated men, and have persevered through unspeakable sorrow.

Here at Lawndale, I have had my most formative year to date. Much of what I learned here – about life, about justice, about healthcare, about God – I hope to share in my coming posts on this blog. For now, I want only to make this one point.

Lawndale was here long before I arrived, and it will continue to thrive long after I leave, this coming June. It is refreshing to feel small – to be part of a story I neither wrote nor foresaw. People here do not care what is on my resume. Now, after some months, I don’t either. Only love remains.

Of course, what I experience here at Lawndale is a microcosm of what is happening at large – that of which we get a glimpse in moments of intense joy and intense suffering. We inherited this world, this life, our stories – we do not control or deserve this. In an era where our Babels of social policy, medicine, and technology inch enticingly close to the heavens, we will do well to remember that the made is but a shadow of the given.

This blog, at its best, will be a collective of people trying to recover a vision of grace. Not much of what we say here will be new, but novelty is not the goal. It is remembrance. Blogging will become for us, I hope, a liturgy that brings us to the precipice – into a fuller view of His vast kingdom, and, consequently, a diminished view of our own selves. I understand more than ever before that grace is not only sufficient, it is inescapable. We pray only that He peel back the scales and let us see it anew.

Daniel works as an intern at a primary care center in the inner city, and plans to attend medical school this coming fall.

A Postscript

I wanted to say a few things about the blog itself that I couldn’t fit in the actual piece. Consider this post as an introduction to the blog for the first-time reader.

1) The idea for this blog began with a simple chat that Enoch and I had and we quickly realized we needed reinforcements. In the coming weeks, you will get to meet our regular contributors, discussing anything and everything in their respective fields. It is, simply put, an ongoing attempt to articulate and revise a Gospel Worldview as it applies to each field. New feature posts will appear every Monday and Wednesday. Unfortunately, a contributor’s name will not appear on the Contributors page until he or she has made his or her first post. We expect to have gone through the entire rotation in early March. As a sneak peak, we have Alice Su, the fierce freelance journalist (already published in multiple reputable publications!) writing about media and politics of the Middle East; Ed Zheng, a culinary mastermind trapped in a consultant’s body, speaking about food; and Jinju Pottenger, who famously traveled to North Korea, talking  about law and justice. Others, who I will not mention here solely for brevity’s sake, are just as amazing and I am honestly more excited about reading their posts than writing mine.  So stick with us.

2) You will notice the link to what we’re calling The Reading List. That is a list that our contributors will help us put together for anybody who is interested in how the Gospel Worldview applies to a particular topic/field. 1-2 works will compose the “Canon” for each category, and 5-10 works will compose the “Highly Recommended” section. As we put those up, please feel free to comment on the selection and give us input!

3) Please make sure to like our Facebook Page for updates and posts with interesting/relevant articles!