pleading not guilty

I was worried I'd grown numb to it. Maybe I'd become calloused. Hardened. Immune. Because poverty wasn't affecting me like it used to.

When I faced it as a teenager—on mission trips to places like Nicaragua and Botswana—my eyes and my heart were opened to things I never knew existed in the world. I was wrecked to discover such unimaginable and inescapable poverty, and it messed with me at a deep level.

I'd return home and make all kinds of extreme commitments. I vowed to be less materialistic. I took radical stances with my "self-absorbed" Christian friends. I soapboxed about America's obsession with excess. I volunteered more, and served wherever and whenever I could.

But as the aftershocks of my experiences with poverty wore off, so did my radical life changes. Until my next mission trip.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

It was a vicious cycle of the best intentions that did nothing more than fuel my need to continually strive to be better, do more, and—somehow, hopefully—be enough.

I'm not saying I didn't genuinely have compassion and conviction and passion to live a life that makes a difference. I did. But it translated into a guilt-driven reaction to the extremes I saw and experienced.

It was a nauseating roller coaster ride as I tried—and failed—to reconcile the poverty I witnessed with the life I lived everyday and to bridge the disparity between my abundance and their lack.

It was years after I moved to South Africa to serve in the poorest region of the country that I finally realized that those things can't be reconciled or bridged. The contrasts will never make sense.

And I mustn't allow my guilt to force-feed my insatiable striving complex. Nor must I allow it to paralyze me into inactivity or apathy.

I had finally learned to step off the roller coaster and actually engage in doing something that would truly make a difference. Not fueled by guilt, but by hope.

I realized that it isn't about being apologetic for what I have, giving everything away, or looking down on how much people spend at Starbucks. It is about stewarding what I have well, using it to serve, strengthen, and love others.

People often ask me how I could live and work for so long in a community of such dire poverty. "Do you just get used to it?" What they are really asking is the same thing I've asked myself: "Did you grow numb?"

And I see now that I didn't. But somewhere in my 13 years of living in Africa, something did change in me.

I stopped feeling guilty about what I had and the "luck" of being born an American, and I started to feel grateful to be part of the solution.

The problems and challenges are enormous, but we can all do something that makes a difference. In our own unique ways, with our own individual passions and talents, we can bring hope into places and hearts that gave up a long time ago.

Not because we feel guilty, but because we are compelled by the hope we ourselves have been given.

What's been your experience with responding to poverty? How can we move past guilt into being part of the solution?

{photos by Daniel White}

face time

Have you seen Dentyne's current ad campaign?

I think it's sheer creative genius. Mostly because it deeply resonates with people. And while it doesn't make me want to blow bubbles with Dentyne gum, it does make me want to put down my laptop and enjoy some face time.

Living in Africa for over a decade, the internet has been my life source for connections. Most of my friendships have never been sustained with phone calls, coffee dates, lunches, or visits. Instead, they've been cultivated with emails, instant messages, blogging, and video chats.

Lately I've heard a lot of dialogue about whether or not community can be found online. This much I know is true: It can. I'm grateful for the rich, genuine friendships that I've fostered over the internet.

But while I appreciate the value of "technologically advanced" friendships, I also recognize the significance of what I've missed in actual face time. A text message communicates far less than a long, tight hug. A phone call pales in comparison with the unspoken expressions of a glance or a touch. An online chat is merely a shadow of a chai-in-hand conversation on a coffee shop couch.

I'll always be grateful for whatever form of connection and affection I'm blessed to have. But whenever possible, please can I have some face time?

'Cause, seriously... What I wouldn't give for a hug like this today---


french cuisine

I'm about to fly home to Africa after being in America for five months. That means for almost half a year I've...

  • stayed in other people's homes.
  • not sat at a desk for a normal days' work.
  • traveled a lot.
  • not cooked a real meal.
  • drank gallons of frothy beverages from Starbucks.
  • had friends on speed-dial and made frequent use of those buttons.
  • did my own laundry.
  • strolled through Target whenever I wanted to.

I'm going to miss aspects of each of those when I'm back home. (Yes, even the laundry!) Okay, I may not really miss staying in other people's homes; I am definitely ready for my own space with my own couch.

I think even more than I'll miss my beloved grande non-fat extra-hot chai lattes, I'll miss not cooking. I'm not good at it. I don't like it. And I hate having to plan out meals. But alas, duty calls. And cook I shall.

French toast anyone?

toothpaste, travel mugs, and wedding bells

The only questions I remember were about toothpaste and our kitchen. After we got married, my application for permanent residency in South Africa was expedited. Having a South African husband put me into the fast-track category. But before I'd be granted permanent residency, the government wanted to make sure I wasn't faking our relationship just to stay in the country. They wanted proof that we were really married.

It was like a scene from a movie.

Niel and I were interviewed separately by government officials. They asked us questions that would supposedly help them determine whether or not Niel and I had known each other as long as we said we had.

I was seated across from a large man behind a desk. I was nervous, fidgeting; I felt like I was on The Newlywed Game Show. Things went smoothly until the kind sir asked, "What is your favorite toothpaste?" I started to sweat. Do I answer with what I'd really say or with what I think Niel might say? I mumbled something about my favorite being an American brand that isn't in South Africa. "Just answer the question," he snapped. "Crest...?" I said, with a question mark at the end. He nodded and moved on.


I was asked to describe what our kitchen looked like. I'm way more detail-oriented than Niel is, so I wasn't sure how Niel might have answered that question. I gave vague, general details first---the guy's face remained expressionless---and then I started to give more specifics. When I told him that the top of our cabinets were lined with Starbucks travel mugs, he interrupted me and told me that would be enough. I smiled, and wished I could high-five Niel right then and there.

Needless to say, I received my permanent residency a few months later.

And if we were quizzed with the same questions today, I guarantee we'd both still get them right.

lost in translation

I met my South African husband eleven years ago. I was working at a missions organization in Texas; Niel was going to host our first team to South Africa. Even though it wasn't my department, I was asked to be involved in the planning of the trip. When Niel came into town to go over final logistics---his first time to America---he spent quite a bit of time hanging out in my office.

I'm a snacker---always have been and always will be---and I had a drawer full of snacks in my desk. One of my favorites to stock up on was animal crackers. Mainly because they were cheap. And came in big bags.

On one of Niel's many visits to my office, I offered him a handful. It was his first time to ever see or eat an animal cracker. I don't know if he was more intrigued by the animal-shaped more-cookie-than-cracker snack sensation or the fact that I had a king-sized bag of them in my desk drawer.

A while later Niel came back into my office. He sauntered over to my desk, with his stunning blue eyes, wavy blond hair pulled back in a pony tail, and heart-stopping accent.

"Can I have some more pet biscuits?"

I burst out laughing. "It sounds like you're asking for a dog treat. They're called animal crackers," I told him as I gave him another handful.

Even now, after almost eight years of marriage, things often get lost in translation between us---sometimes comical, sometimes frustrating. But I wouldn't trade my pet-biscuit-eating man for anyone in the world.