The second moment that changed my life came during my first trip overseas.1
Just two days after the initial culture shock of emerging from an airport in a developing nation on the opposite side of the world from the country I knew, I spent a night wandering the streets of one of Asia’s largest megacities. I was struck by the scale, the sights, the beauty, the beggars, everything new.
Dusk fell as I walked along the shoreline. Fishermen pulled wooden dinghys onto a litter-covered beach. In front of me were the simplest homes I had ever seen, sticks of wood and bamboo holding up black tarps pitched on the sand.
Three officials in a yellow vehicle reached the tents just before I did. The residents bolted from their shelters as the officials attacked. Sticks were pulled up, snapped in half. Tarps torn to pieces. Some of the young men disassembled their own shelters and ran off with them before someone else could. Homeowners with slow reflexes saw their homes destroyed.
Stenciled letters on the invading vehicle declared, “Tourist Police.”
I was infuriated. I approached to within a few feet of the police, folded my arms, and stared at them.
The police stopped and looked. They told me to leave.
They began to start again, then turned and urged me to leave.
I didn’t. I stood and stared. I felt that my privilege as a tourist, as a “rich” person, provided that safety buffer which meant I could stand up to them when others could not. I knew that the police would not dare to do anything to me, even as they did whatever they wanted to the squatters. I acted as a witness and refused to leave.
The police left.
The people returned to their homes, gathered together the things that remained. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a sum, nothing for me but perhaps a month’s wages for one of them. I saw a woman who looked like a matriarch, handed her the money, and slowly pointed to everyone. Others watched but stayed silent. I pointed to everyone again, and she nodded. I thanked her and left.
For several hours I wandered the streets and digested what I had seen. My mind raced with the idea that I had been able to help but without knowing how to really help. I was stuck with the feeling that it had been so easy to make a small difference, and that there was so much more that could be done to make a large difference.
When I got back to my hotel room at 2am and dropped into bed, my life had changed. I already knew that poverty like this existed, that harassment and oppression were realities all over the world, but there’s a difference between knowing something and being there. Now I felt responsibility. Something had to be done, somehow the pattern had to break, and how could I claim that anyone else had to do something if I wasn’t willing to do it?
I wrote the following stream-of-consciousness entry into my journal and blogged it to my friends the next morning.
Getting lost and having to backtrack three times in the first hour…praying the agpeya while the Arabian Sea splashes at my feet…watching dozens of giant fruit bats slowly cross the sky above me…strolling down the streets with my umbrella in a driving rainstorm while the locals scatter…accidentally getting into the local aquarium after-hours and wandering through the exhibits in the dark, completely alone…getting mobbed by the street vendors trying to get money out of the foreigner…getting mobbed by the massage guys on the beach trying to get money out of the foreigner…watching the tourism police break up a shanty-town on the beach…getting yelled at by the police because of my refusal to leave the scene…doing what I could to help, and leaving knowing I had done neither all I could do nor nearly enough…learning that the phrase “rats the size of a cat” is not hyperbole…looking at the little girl in the beautiful purple dress standing in front of me, holding out her hand and putting it to her mouth in a repeated motion…seeing the local storeowner feed dozens of hungry guys free bread and rice late at night…going through the back streets of the city late at night in a rainstorm, smiling at cabbies who give me incredulous looks when I turn down their offers and continue towards my hotel…dropping into my too-small bed in my too-hot and too muggy room with the way-too-nasty bathroom, wondering if I might need to spend my life here…
After two weeks of similar experiences, I returned home with many questions in my head. Two months of prayer later, God had answered me clearly. I was going to move overseas to work, live, and serve alongside the poor.