It wouldn't make sense to the average American. You'd probably question my sanity and wonder why in the world I felt this way . . . but it couldn't be more true. In fact, it's so real that often I feel alone and out of place.
I've had the honor of traveling and serving internationally for over 23 years. It started at the impressionable age of 15 when I went on my first short-term mission trip with my church to Craiova, Romania. Little did I know that THAT single event would forever alter the course of my life! I knew after those two weeks in Eastern Europe that somehow, some way this type of experience was meant to be a part of my identity. Of course, although my heart longed to return, I had no way of knowing what the next two decades would hold.
Trash-piled city streets . . . dirt paths leading to remote villages . . . tin-roof buildings . . . foreign languages have all become a part of my reality. My identity. My comfort zone. Things that would make a typical MidWestern step back make me want to jump in with both feet.
I know! Sounds weird and not everyone can relate . . . and that's okay.
I recently watched a feature documentary called The Cinema Travellers which showed at the St. Louis International Film Festival. It sparked my interest because it not only focused on bringing film to remote parts of the world but took place in India which holds a dear place in my heart after spending two weeks there in 2015 doing photojournalism for a nonprofit. It's not one of those movies that brings the audience to tears. It doesn't necessarily pull on your heart-strings. BUT . . . seeing the still images of the people watching in awe at the tent screen brought to tears to my eyes. It does the same thing now as I type just thinking about it.
I have this incredible, unmistakeable, undeniable, and almost unexplainable connection with people, especially those in foreign lands and evenmoreso in poverty cultures. I know no boundaries and embrace differences. I'm quite fearless when I'm in my photojournalist element.
Let me give you a couple examples . . .
My driver and I had just left a remote village about 3 hours from where I was living during my 16 day photojournalism assignment in India. As we drove down the dirt road, we both noticed a group of women working in a distant field. With only a shared glance of agreement, the driver put the car in reverse and drove backwards down the road to the top of the hill overlooking the workers. I grabbed my camera, quickly jumped out of the car alone, and headed down the estranged land to meet the ladies working in the rice field to provide for heir families. I'm sure it was quite a surprise to see a little white lady with a big camera covering down the hill to them . . . not an everyday site in that part of the world! It makes me smile to even visualize that same scenario today. I greeted them with a smile and in my own way, asked to take their picture. This captured moment is one of my all-time-favorite photographs to this day.
Now I'll take you with me to Tunisia, Africa. I was traveling in a packed car of Americans whom were going to be leaving the country soon yet I had just started my photojournalism assignment. As we were shown the country, the driver (who had already experienced my adventurous spirit) suddenly pulled the car over. He brought my attention to field workers in the distance. I grabbed my camera, jumped out of the car and when my friend asked if I wanted company, I quickly replied "no" and went on my way. Same situation, different part of the world. I shared smiles and pictures and by the end of my 5 minutes with the strangers, they had given me a handful of their pickings . . . and the gentleman even walked me back to the car to give everyone some fresh picked beans from their day.
Every experience and person we encounter shapes us. Our perspective. Our personality. Our identity. Individually, we choose how much it alters our paths and where it takes us. I choose to see the beauty in the brokenness. To see the value each person possess. To see the love admits the pain.
People often ask me if it's hard to go? To see poverty firsthand? To be surrounded by foreign sites and sounds? And my answer is always the same . . . it's not hard to go. It's difficult to come home.
See . . . what I've seen, heard, smelled and experienced is deeply engrained in me. I see life through a different filter than the average America. I struggle to hear complaints about slow service at a restaurant when people around the world struggle to provide one meal a day for their family. I cringe when I watch impatient customers watch in line for more than a few minutes of their precious time when people around the world walk miles each day for clean water. I even find myself getting upset at my own children when they say they have nothing to do when they each have their own room full of toys and activities . . . when kids around the world sleep on dirty floors and play with trash to occupy their time. And I definitely get frustrated watching HGTV when homeowners comment that the closet is not big enough to fit all their clothes. Oh and how about advertisements that claim true happiness comes in the form of a super-sized meal, shiny jewelry, wrinkle-free cream or whatever else they can sell you to give you a false sense of value and beauty.
I think you get my drift.
So when my plane lands back on U.S. soil, I have to prepare my heart. I have to readjust because the once familiar sites, sounds, people and conversations are uncomfortable. I feel alone and out of place many times. Please don't hear me wrong . . . I don't regret any of my trips and would choose to do it all over again. I am incredibly grateful for each opportunity to serve, learn and grow my own character.
Just remember that everyone sees life through their own specific experiences so don't be quick to judge someone's response. They may not know what you are going through . . . the struggles you face . . . the pain you feel . . . or the plans ahead. Tread lightly but with understanding. Be open to learning and listening because transparency gives people permission to be honest . . . to connect . . . to become familiar even if uncomfortable.