My work can weigh me down. If I’m not careful, I can wear it like a heavy cross dangling from my neck, like a bullet wound in my side, like a bitter slice taken from my tongue.
I work for an international, Christian nonprofit, and while I create the designs and post the pictures, write the emails and align the website, I also travel. This year, I’ve been to the Nuba Mountains of Sudan and a small village in South Sudan.
Next year, I’m scheduled to go on four two-week trips, totaling two months of the year. I’ll be in Africa, Asia, Costa Rica, and the Middle East.
On trips, I live behind the camera, walking silently around the room as a teammate preaches to a group. I’ll smile at the woman who notices my large, black camera and ever so slightly poses in my direction. I’ll nod my head at her as I lower my camera. I will continue my soft steps.
I’ll sit with an open notebook and conduct an interview with an interpreter.
I’ll ask question after question to our local leader, our guide or our driver about the bomb hanging in the tree or the home reduced to crumbled stone.
I will ask them to tell me stories, so I can return home and repeat them. So I can tell you why the bomb is hanging from the tree in the Nuba Mountains. So I can tell you that it’s a parachute bomb, dropped by an Antonov plane in 2014. So I can inform you that it was sent by the Khartoum government to kill the people of the Nuba Mountains, to kill them because they are “African,” not Arab, and because they sided with the rebel army in the south during the Civil War. So you’ll know that six children died from this bomb, that offices were destroyed and the water system was demolished. Yet it was hung in the tree, and there it remains.
I’ll return home to tell you that the home reduced to crumbled brick was bombed in 2012, but thankfully, no one was home that day. I’ll tell you that the first place Khartoum bombed was the Bible College of Nuba, then the house of Ryan Boyette—an American man who moved to Nuba to work for Samaritan’s Purse, who stayed for 15 years through the bombing, who married a Nuban woman and had children, who created Nuba Reports, a media outlet that allowed the world a glimpse into the genocide in real-time. I’ll also tell you that the house was never rebuilt, just in case it was to get bombed again.
That’s my job, to tell the stories that have been entrusted to me. To use the photos I take for the benefit of those we serve. To attach names when allowed and to conceal identity when needed. To understand just how little I know and to cloak myself in curiosity.
But what about my stories? I’ve wondered what I do with those.
How do I write about the day in the starving village, about the heaviness of the damp air as we climbed out of the truck bed or the way the collarbones doubled and tripled like multiplication tables as the children began to crowd around us?
Can I admit that I lied? When I said our nice camera, lent to us by a professional videographer, needed to stay in the truck because of the rain that had already stopped falling? I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t raise it to my eye as we walked through the makeshift village, couldn’t let it detach me from the moment, couldn’t become a spectator in the starving village.
I want to scream as I revisit that day five months ago.
The smooth, dark hands of the mothers that shook my sweaty, white one. Mother after mother, each so beautiful. The long line of hands to shake before I took my seat. “We don’t have water to wash him,” one woman said, gesturing to the little boy’s dirty face as he stared up at me.
The knot that formed in my throat, the impulse to scream like a bereaved mother when our team was ushered into plastic chairs beneath a mango tree, the mothers standing behind us and the children directly in front.
The Nuban man who stood and thanked us for coming, said they prayed for us to come, said they waited all day for our arrival. He said the women are doing so much work, walking up to two hours each way for water. I cried behind my sunglasses.
20 kilometers from Khartoum troops—the troops occupying these villagers’ land, the ones who drove them away from their water supply, out of their homes, without tools or seeds, without harvest to sustain them—I cried behind my sunglasses.
We had come to assess the situation and see if we could help, but the rains were fast approaching. Rains that made the mud in Nuba a chest-deep sludge that no food shipment truck could pass through.
And we wouldn’t make promises, because in international missions, promises about anything other than the saving grace of Jesus Christ are at best, unwise, and at worst, poison.
Promises are outlawed by our own Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.”
I stared at the children from behind my sunglasses and cried silently, knowing my response was not culturally appropriate. I zeroed in on the little girl with braids and bucked teeth, crouching in the dirt. I took out my phone and snapped a picture of the image already branded in my mind.
David stood, poised from years of swallowing tears, and gave a short message of God’s love. He left them with the only thing we could, maybe the only thing we ever would, maybe the only thing that ever mattered: the Gospel.
As we walked back to the truck, our guide told us that more than 200 children would die of starvation during the rainy season.
I wedged myself in the corner of the truck bed, arms draped over the side to brace against the many bumps on the dirt path. We were headed toward a mango field. Why?
I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I just wanted to be away, somewhere I could cry without reserve. Somewhere I could thrash with bitterness at my complete and utter helplessness.
All I could see was the children—the girl with the buckteeth—and wonder if they would be dead in a month. As the driver rounded a turn, he brought the truck too close to the brush flanking the left side of the road. A perfectly timed bump pitched us into it, before spitting us back out. My right arm emerged with 20 something pencil-thin thorns protruding from it.
I impulsively lifted my left hand to sweep the thorns off, as if they were feathers. “No!” Lazarus yelled, as he jumped from the opposite corner of the truck to kneel down in front of me.
Within moments the Nuban man, just a few years older than me, gently cradled my arm and plucked each thorn out with vertical precision. Blood rose like ink droplets from words unsaid, dotting along my forearm and tricep.
Do I get to write about this day?
Does it get to go on my calendar as a day I changed?
Am I allowed to feel traumatized or heartbroken?
Should I tell anyone that I still see their faces?
For awhile, I’ve believed I don’t, it doesn’t, I’m not and I shouldn’t. I am not the bereaved mother, sorrowful from one glance at my child’s dirty face, fatigued from the hours I’ve walked for water, worried whether the harvest will produce enough. Nor am I the starving child or the burdened father.
So I’ve cried my tears behind sunglasses in Africa and with very few in the States. I’ve swallowed my words, so many words. I’ve let the ink droplets dry before they touch paper.
I don’t want my perspective to focus pity or sympathy on myself, but how do I continue to swim, four trips next year, if I cannot come up for air?
Where is my place in this? How much can I feel before it is indulgent? How much can I share from my perspective before I am self-focused?
But then I think of Lazarus. What if dear, sweet Lazarus wrote about me? What if he wrote about the day the girl from the United States got her arm swept into the thorn bush, blood covering her arm, eyes small and wet with tears? Is he allowed to write about my pain and feel pain of his own, feel pain on my behalf? If Lazarus is allowed empathy, and any emotion associated with it—sadness, anger, guilt, bitterness—am I?
In the “The Empathy Exams” by Leslie Jamison, Jamison writes: “Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (“into”) and pathos (“feeling”)—a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border-crossing by way of query…”
If empathy is a kind of travel into another’s pain, then some of what I feel is empathy and some of what I feel is not. Some is rage and sorrow and guilt at my own helplessness and inadequacy.
My intense empathy for the people I have met has lead me to question why I am so small, so unlike God, so finite, so limited, so unable to heal, so unable to help. And although God created community, I’ve run from the spaces and faces asking me about my experiences on these trips. I’ve hidden emotional turmoil from those I love, and I’ve silenced my experiences because I’m afraid.
Afraid of saying it wrong, of not accurately representing the people I’ve met, of being misunderstood.
But more than that, I’m afraid of drowning.
Development & Community Outreach, Ciara Brennan
Less than a month after graduating with a degree in Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication, Ciara accepted a full-time position with ATC and boarded a plane to South Sudan. She brings her passion for honest storytelling to our social media and spends hours perfecting our website from her downtown apartment. Her internet browser has 8+ tabs open at all times––just the way she likes it. On trips, you can find Ciara behind the camera, jotting notes during an interview, or burning her fingers with the women in the kitchen. On weekends, you can find her listening to Americana-Folk music at one of her husband's shows.