November 10, 2016 / Praxis
Janna Barber learns to accept the prickly bits and sweet scents of a mother/daughter relationship.
January 12, 2004
This would be so much easier if I were still there. There is a certain feeling of urgency that I cannot quite recapture; a sense that it matters, and not that it matters in some cosmic sense, but that it matters here and it matters today. How clearly unclear it all was. Any thought about making these girls lives’ any easier seemed simplistic and impossible and so very necessary all at once. And yet part of that helplessness was exactly the point. It was beyond and with and all around me. How unnatural it seems to be having the conversation here: on leather couches, in grand ballrooms; to be reading statements written in oval offices and policies voted on around expansive boardroom tables. I’m told that this is where the power is. This is where change happens. “If you really want to make a difference. . .”, they say. But I wonder.
It’s such a convenient conversation. Sure, it strikes me. I read the staggering numbers, attach the unfathomable data to a story just to make it personal, and the somatic injustice rises up in my throat or turns in my stomach or threatens to keep me from sleep. There’s a reminder again that things are not the way they’re supposed to be, that all is not quite right. I am bothered by a sense somewhere between restlessness and calling. So I write essays and maybe even checks and I think about writing a letter to my Senator. I read the book or pick up the latest New York Times Magazine. Over a drink, I discuss the theological, social and economic roots and implications. I pride myself in being aware. I appease my social conscience, thinking that my conversations and benefit dinners are all contributing to some global solution.
And maybe they are. God, I pray they are.
And I keep eating. I even end in dessert. I close the book, put a The End on the story, toss it all aside, pull the sheets back and climb into bed. There’s not much more I can do, not tonight. And lucky for me, I don’t have to. I have the unfathomable luxury of walking away, of signing off, of saying good night. While my conversations are coming to very neat, concise closes, she’s tucking her kids in, putting her shoes on and taking the rest off. The red glow of her night is on and she’s tossed from one set of dirty hands to another. There are rules in place, rules against going without protection, rules against sexual violence. But once her door closed, the only rule is his desire. She only knows that tomorrow her kids will again be hungry, and this is the cost of her love for them. Yes, it matters today. It matters tonight, because there are still six hours until morning. And while we can afford those six hours, she cannot.
If all I have to offer her is conversation, awareness, words, then yes, I will give the rest of my life to the talk. But it’s not. It can’t be. It’s not all I have and it’s not enough.
My hands are tied. It feels incomprehensible. For a moment or two, I feel five again, staring at that plate of cold beets in front of me, trying to wrap my little minds around the idea that my refusal to eat is somehow—anyhow—related to little kids starving in the Sudan.
But what if it was? What if I were actually willing to see it? To step out of academia and politics just long enough to really feel the dirt. I talk about far off places. I go to far off places. It’s easier that way—to address a problem thousands of miles away. It makes me less comfortable to think of the kids I climb over on my very own Broadway or Main Street, of what that girl might have to do tonight to feed herself tomorrow, of what unimaginable violation she has already known to have made the street feel like the safest viable option. No, if I touch it at all—either in thought or in actual presence—I go very far away and I stay for a very limited amount of time. I spend a few minutes or days or months there and feel very noble doing it, but I do so knowing that the safety net is always in place. When the civil unrest gets to be too much, I have promise of embassy rescue. If physically, emotionally, in any sense at all, I just can’t take it any more, there’s always the return ticket home. We, for whatever God-given grace or blink of fate, will always have the luxury of abandon, the luxury of safety, the luxury of retreat, the luxury of enough. For all of my foreseeable life, I will have choice.
What if I chose instead to stay? I would stay because it matters. I would endure the conversation much longer than was comfortable. I would take one of these girls as my friend and stand by her long after the media moves on from this hot topic to another. I would give to the point of it really costing something. I would pray until I had a real sense of how much this actually pains him. I would pour myself out on behalf of someone else because they need me; and because of that even harder reality: that I need them.
If I choose to leave, I choose not to see. I miss, as Simon did, this shamelessly seductive and divine image of grace spilled out at Jesus’ feet. I miss the desperate faith of a woman who would push through pressing crowds dragging bloody rags behind her just to touch the hem of his robe. I miss what Israel missed. I miss what the Pharisees and Laodicea and even the disciples missed: that he has come to bring the gospel to the poor; that he has come to her; that outside of knowing her, my own understanding of grace and hope and faith is incomplete. No matter how glorious my theological claims, I miss him if I choose to stay in my high places. Among the least of these, he directs.
It’s so easy for me, even just a few weeks out, to begin to believe again that it has so little to do with me, to believe that these girls, my friends, are already so far beyond my reach. And then I get a letter or develop another roll of film and suddenly it’s all real again. Surreal, but real somehow still.
The reality is that she is not so far away. In every neighborhood a similar form of exploitation is at work. Whether in a brothel in Bolivia, a beach in Thailand, a street corner in Seattle or a strip club somewhere in the heart of the Midwest, the same commodity is for sale, the same perversion at play, the same opportunity to enter, not just conversation, but actual lives.
I know that this is the reality in which I must choose to stay. And yet I wonder if I can. I so much love the luxury that I have to forget, to pretend it all away, to save this document, and shut down and go to sleep.
My night ends here. The same is not true for her.
Heather works with prostitutes in El Alto, Bolivia for the organization Word Made Flesh.