Numb is what I was. Overwhelmed by 24-hour news about precision bombing + corporate corruption + genocide + suicide killers, evil empires, broken promises, dead children, stolen dreams + working Americans slipping into poverty. Just numb.
So, being numb and all, I wasn’t sure how I was going to engage youth groups in the fight against global oppression. Because that’s the assignment I was asked to take on in The Justice Mission.
I think I know something about constructing appeals that get a knee jerk emotional response. I just don’t think that translates to sustainable engagement. Besides which, manipulating 15 year-olds feels a little sleazy to me.
That said, if the mere facts of the matter were enough to generate committed action we would live in a very different world wouldn’t we.
What to do…what to do?
The solution was finding a way to see the world through the eyes of someone who wasn’t so numb to pain and hope. That turned out to be four American kids who were alert and articulate (and possessed a significant emotional vocabulary). We took them to South Asia for ten days—to look over their shoulders and into their eyes as they became eyewitnesses to oppression.
Ben was few weeks out of Christian high school and on his way to a state university. Charissa was a high school junior. Lindsay had just completed her sophomore year in college. Trever was entering his senior year in high school (some people recognize Trever from his work in television and the movies but that wasn’t why he was on the trip). Trever and Lindsay and Ben and Charissa all went to Asia because they love Jesus and they love people and they are not afraid to see what they’re seeing—however shocking—and describe it clearly and directly.
Our hosts were The International Justice Mission who are heroes as far as I’m concerned. They are law enforcement professionals and government relations experts and attorneys (the sort who become protagonists in John Grisham novels) who have figured out how to extract children from forced labor, how to release girls and women from involuntary prostitution, how to bring corrupt cops and soldiers to justice and how to restore stolen land to poor farmers—all in the name of Jesus and by lawful means. This is very impressive to me, and a heckuva good story.
IJM introduced the American kids to dozens of people their age and younger who were trapped in hideous circumstances—little kids rolling beedi cigarettes instead of going to school; a girl forced into prostitution when she should have been in seventh grade; a boy whose 10th grade year was interrupted when he had to go to work for a loan shark; a woman who had been breaking rocks by hand in a stone quarry for 40 years (40YEARS!) while getting further in debt every year.
The Americans took case histories from more than two-dozen children in bonded slavery—they were working to pay the interest on family debts structured so they could never, in two or three lifetimes pay them off (which explains the woman at the rock quarry). Typical story: My brother was sick. My father borrowed $25 from a man in the village to pay the hospital. I’ve been working ten hours a day for the last six years to pay off the $25. I don’t know how much longer I will have to work. I feel a little sick from remembering. Maybe I’m not as numb as I thought.
Those case histories, including x-marks on little human-shaped outlines to show where some children were beaten by the “businessmen” who held them captive, became part of the evidence against the moneylenders. This was not busy work. In the months following our visit, IJM mounted legal proceedings against those men, leading to jail time and hefty fines for the bad guys and emancipation for the children.
This is what IJM does. They leverage the simple, painstaking work of law enforcement for the benefit of people who have no one else to defend them. The Americans watched as dozens of children waved their papers in the air—the documentation declaring their release from bonded slavery and threatening prosecution against anyone who dares to steal their freedom.
Every night the Americans reflected on what they saw and heard that day and how they felt and what they thought it meant and what they wanted to do about it. All this was dutifully recorded tape after tape by the very tall and talented Jay Delp and me.
The five sessions in The Justice Mission are as good as I know how to write. But what youth workers talk about when they describe The Justice Mission experience in their groups is the moral authority of those four American kids facing up to their responsibility through tears and determination—conspiring to make the world safe for children.
Who has what it takes to look at global oppression without flinching? Not many. Not me. It’s too big; I feel too small. Joseph Stalin, who ordered the murder of hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens, is supposed to have said that the death of one person is a tragedy, but the death of thousands is only a statistic. That’s why The Justice Mission couldn’t be about numbers. It had to be the story of four American kids who saw and heard and felt certain things when they looked oppression right in the kisser and decided what to do about it.
From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. Psalm 8:2
From the lips of children…
I’ve spent a good chunk of my life trying to represent the voices of people who are mainly overlooked (or ignored, or misrepresented) by people in power. The Justice Mission takes that effort two layers deep: It’s a vehicle for the passion of four young storytellers who would be easy to ignore except that they are eyewitnesses to things most adults have only read about (if that). And these four speak on behalf of millions of children victimized by adults who certainly know better (but do it anyway).
The Justice Mission may be as good as I can hope to produce—I’m still learning so we’ll see. In the meantime, if it engages people like you in groups like yours to make a tiny dent in the universe of pain, it will be enough.