What’s A Guy To Do?

What’s a guy to do when you’re the only guy on a vision trip with eight women? What’s a guy to do when you are in the back of a bus full of women who repeatedly break out into songs from The Lego Movie? What’s a guy to do when during testimony time the talk trends toward relationship topics? What’s a guy to do? For these things, and many others, a man gives thanks to God for the privilege of being on a journey with so many wonderful, talented, exceptional, and joyful women of God.

There have been a number of instances when I could not participate in the planned activities. I could not tour inside the House of Change where victims of trafficking live nor could I go upstairs at the Dream House, which is a resident program for at risk young women. In the activities with the women, I held back, not sure what would be appropriate. During a pizza dinner we were having with the women at the Dream House, while the rest of our team was painting nails and later doing folk dancing, Allison (our team co-leader) sat next to me and–in a nice way–basically asked, “Just why are you here, Ray?” I had a ready answer: do what I can and bear witness to the rest.

While the rest of the team was touring the House of Change, I pulled weeds in the vegetable garden. More germane to our trip, I participated when we broke up into teams that accompanied Beginning of Life staffers into high schools to offer lessons concerning moral values and character development, which are supported by the state as long as there is no outright evangelizing. Two other women and I visited English classes and discussed the misconceptions about the USA. We had them draw diagrams and word pictures of what they thought of America – lots about Hollywood and the Statue of Liberty. There were many questions about emigration and studying in the USA. The students were all very bright, attentive, and cooperative.

Furthermore, I can and will give witness to the exceptional work of Beginning of Life. I am not new to the issue of human trafficking. I have read the literature and been to the conferences. To my knowledge, I know no other organization providing the breadth of programs and services aimed toward victims and at risk youth in relation to human trafficking as Beginning of Life. I also know of no organization with a better rate of success. More people will hear about the work and I will do my part.

When I first learned of the trip from Helen last winter and told her of my interest in joining, she actually jumped and said, “We got a man!” The idea was that out of a team of nine people, at least one person of my gender would be represented. In the past few years, since gaining an interest in human trafficking issues, I have received comments from various people when attending trainings and awareness events about how glad they are to see a man taking interest in the issues. I always found that troubling.

What’s a guy to do? As in all things, in this area, Jesus is our guide and he had a response as to what a man should do:  “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25, 37-40)

To the above list, in our time, we could add the child sold to a brothel, the girl duped by a pimp into being a prostitute out of personal emptiness, or the young woman tricked into leaving an economically depressed situation to discover herself trapped in the sex trade with no way home. In our world today, these have become among “the least” with little voice and few options. A man should do what he can and I hope that I will have an adequate response when I stand before my King.


Changing Lives One Chicken at a Time

When a classroom of teenagers was asked if they thought it was okay to hit women, most of the boys raised their hands in agreement while the girls sat there awkwardly…quietly. When the same question was asked to a younger class not one student raised a hand at all. Beginning of Life (BoL) learned that they needed to reach children and take them under their wing at a younger age to create true behavioral and future societal change. Thousands of children are abandoned as social orphans when parents leave Moldova for better working opportunities overseas, leaving their children behind. In many cases the children/teenagers live without parental supervision, discipline, familial affection, or role models. As a response to this desperate need, BoL began a holistic youth program called Place of Change (PoC) 6 months ago that brings kids ages 11-16 together, twice a week, to receive lessons in smalls groups on various themes in a safe space and to share in community having both positive male and female role models as their instructors.

Today BoL invited over 100 youth from the PoC program on an all day retreat outside of the capitol in a wooded area. Upon arriving it was apparent that the retreat complex was probably once used for events where citizens pledged allegiance to the Soviet Union, but today it was being used for God’s purpose of speaking life into the youth while drawing out their personalities and abilities.

photo 1The first few hours the kids were divided into teams and had to work together to complete various team-building exercises. It was one of those rare moments where time stood still, just for a second, watching the kids completely immerse themselves into the present – not thinking about the abuse that might be waiting for them at home, or lack of guidance, love, or food, but just being in the moment with each other, making friends, learning, and just being a kid. We have learned, as a society, to stay out of the present by constantly regretting the past or worrying about the future while God is constantly calling us to delight in Him in the present. These kids were delighting in the present today.

photo 2The day continued to bring more interesting and unappetizing surprises with activities including a fish joust, which involved the kids working in teams to break raw eggs on their opponents foreheads (while on the back of a partner) with only one weapon – a slippery and size-able raw fish. The smells continued on with my personal favorite – chicken hockey.  You too can learn to play this at home with the kids. It comes with a soapy tarp and mini broomsticks to smack around the puck – a raw chicken. Another group favorite was a game where the teams had to use only their feet to suspend a bucket of water, eggs, salsa, potatoes and any other disgusting item mixed together in the air until someone tipped the bucket.

To say that the BoL staff did a fantastic job today would be an understatement. This entire week we have watched the staff in awe, admiring their passion for changing the lives of youth centering around the issue of human trafficking, and sacrificing their time, sleep, and money to give all they can.

As our incredible week comes to an end our team is already discussing potential ideas that would benefit both BoL and our fight against sex-trafficking in the Washington Metropolitan Area.  We know how blessed we are and it has been brought to our attention even more concretely after meeting so many amazing Moldovans and hearing their life battles, challenges, and hardships. God has called us to a serious assignment to speak for the voiceless and stand up for the powerless – whether in our own country or in another land.  Our team, with the support of so many for this mission trip, will continue to answer His call in this fight against modern day slavery.

Will you join us?




Finding My Voice

What a day.

This morning we had the opportunity to meet with Vlad (Executive Director) and Serghei (Deputy Director) to discuss our thoughts about BoL. We shared our thoughts on the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats for their organization. One thing I greatly admire about BoL is their leadership model of discipleship. They highly value empowering new and young leaders with opportunities to develop their potential in changing the culture and future within Moldova. They value choosing leaders who are capable rather than those who have the “perfect” skill set.

At one point during the meeting, I began to feel very overwhelmed and began wondering, “what am I even doing here and what is my place on this team?” I kept thinking about how I don’t have a graduate degree, I’m not a social worker, I don’t have advanced experience like many members of our team, etc. At one point I wanted to ask a question regarding their program, Way to Success, but felt it wasn’t that important. I felt that my voice and position didn’t matter. I was overcome with so many emotions to a point that I wanted to get up and leave so I could cry. And at one point, I had to leave the room to pull myself together. When I came back, Vlad was sharing his vision for BoL to our group. What he said truly struck me: “We want to be a prophetic voice to officials and raise our voices for those whom we want to protect from social injustice.” The word that really struck me was “voice.”

The past couple of months have been a journey for me in discovering my voice and confidence again. I recently moved to DC to work with NCC in their Protégé Program. It has been one of the best and hardest decisions I have ever made. Since being in DC, I have had to confront the reality of my insecurity – and out of my insecurity I have let my voice go silent. I have let others dictate who I am instead of being confident in my identity in Christ. I let my fear of failure and rejection get in the way of simply being myself.

And today, as I was boldly confronted with my internal mess, Vlad’s passion to be a voice for the voiceless struck something in me.

I didn’t fully come to terms with that until later in the afternoon when we visited this incredible cave monastery, Orheiul Vechi. I was left in awe of the beauty of our amazing Creator. As I stood by the cliffs, (which I am terrified of, mind you), I was reminded that the God who created this beautiful countryside is the same God who also gave me a voice – the same God who desires for me to be confident and simply be myself. He is the same God who created in me unique talents and skills, different from everyone else. He is the same God who placed a passion within me for the Moldovan people 4 years ago. He is the same God who has placed a passion within me to be a voice for the voiceless.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed to the point of paralysis when one finds out about the issue of human trafficking. Few people know exactly what to do right away–but that’s okay. I’ve been looking at this issue for the past 5 years and, at the end of the day, I don’t always know what to do but I do know I am fearfully and wonderfully made. And though I have a long way to go, I know that I was created with purpose and am not alone.



Trauma, Resilience…and then there’s Jesus

If I had to sum up today in one word it would be resilience: the resilience of an entire nation; the resilience of teens who are survivors of trafficking; the resilience of an organization to change the culture and bring light to dark places.

IMG_6687Our day began by participating in Victory Day, to commemorate the end of World War II and honor those that fought and sacrificed their lives. Victory Day is a national holiday in Moldova so there was a huge turnout of Chisinau’s citizenry, including the president and prime minister, to the Complexul Memorial Eternitate. Here, flowers were being laid at an eternal flame while somber music was being played by a live band and veterans of all ages were roaming the park in their decorated regalia. While this was powerful to witness, it also revealed further wounds that Moldova has endured over the past century. Despite suffering war upon war, the people of Chisinau showed true resilience and pride today as they honored the soldiers who fought on their behalf.

In the afternoon our team met up with the girls from the House of Change (a rehabilitation facility for survivors of sexual abuse, exploitation, and trafficking) for a picnic and cook-out on the banks of the river (don’t ask which river because I couldn’t tell you… Google Maps doesn’t exactly work without cell service… bummer). This gave our team the opportunity to simply hang out with the survivors and BOL staff. While some grilled, others played volleyball, others walked along the river, and others played cards – there was no agenda, no program, no checklist of tasks to be completed in this time. This atmosphere of freedom allowed the survivors to relax and have fun with the awkward strangers from America. While we were playing volleyball, it struck me that this idea, this overused buzzword of “resilience” was so much deeper than its definition.

Let me explain… as a social worker, I often encounter the idea that children who experience trauma are inherently resilient is becoming somewhat debunked in the therapeutic context. Yes, children can “bounce back” from trauma better than adults but do they always – no. So it should never be assumed that a child who experiences abuse, neglect, etc. will be “fine” simply because they are a child and we love to think of children as happy-go-lucky little humans. Trauma, especially complex and long-term trauma, can completely re-wire your brain. So, needless to say, the word “resilience” is currently overused and debated in my opinion. Initially I wasn’t too thrilled that it was the single word to pop into my head. What can I say; I’m a woman of many words.

IMG_3460ANYWAY – the girls that we spent time with this afternoon were more than resilient. The word resilient does not do them, their stories, and their futures justice. They have experienced the darkest, most deplorable depths of humanity and are still able to smile, laugh, and joke around like any other teenage girl. This served as a reminder for me not to put survivors of trauma in a special, sugar coated, Nerf-like compartment in my mind. They deserve better from me – better from my time – better from my profession. They deserve to be treated like I would treat anyone else – like I would treat Jesus. I shouldn’t stand on the bank of a river in the midst of a volleyball game and pathologize their behaviors through an unnecessary filter as if I’m walking around on sterilized eggshells. These girls want to be loved with a real love – not some textbook, manual-driven relationship. They need these real relationships in order to mend and correct what was done to them by their perpetrators. (Clarification: while advocating for a real, get-your-hands-dirty-type love, I’m still 100% mindful of being sensitive of their trauma and not in any way trying to minimize it. I, personally, require a reminder to get my nose out of the clinical books and take my sterile white gloves off in order to love them the way they deserve and need.)

This real, messy love is what all survivors of trauma deserve. We encounter these survivors everyday, we work with these people, we live with these people – we may even be one of them ourselves. We need to love with a correcting love. A love that can right wrongs, a love that can bring about freedom, a love that can bring restoration and healing.

How do you love the trauma survivors that you come in contact with? I’ll be the first to admit that I’m often too tired, too busy, too whatever to give more than 10 minutes – and no, do I want to get into the nitty-gritty of your pain? Pshhh, that just sounds messy, complicated and super awkward. Then I’m reminded of the words of C.S. Lewis in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when the children ask Mr. Beaver if Aslan the lion (the Christ figure) is safe “Safe?… Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King.” Getting into people’s lives is never safe – loving like Jesus is never safe. But it’s good. And if we want to see restoration and freedom brought to our world then we need to get into the lives of trauma survivors and truly love them with a correcting love.


A Bitter Portion. A Way to Hope.

“And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” Ruth 1:19-20

IMG_6259Today we were scheduled to visit the second-hand shop that Beginning of Life (BOL) runs to help support their numerous programs. As we drove to the store, we passed what looked like a very large yard-sale, with clothes, books, and other household goods laid orderly along the sidewalk for passer-bys to purchase. However our guide Sergei then explained, that no, this wasn’t a yard-sale. People, mostly the elderly, were selling their personal items because they didn’t have enough money to survive. These large apartment sales happened right after the fall of the Soviet Union and started again during the Recession in early 2000.

Mostly the elderly sell their goods because, in an attempt to provide job opportunities to younger generations, working past age 60 is prohibited. However, that means that the elderly with no children to support them, have no way to generate income (legally) for however long they live afterwards.

“the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”

But it wasn’t just the Recession that got Moldova to where it is today. Throughout my time in Moldova I have been struck by how history and war, world war, is not just a story in a textbook here. I can walk around and see architecture from the Soviet era. I can see what looks like the remnants of structures destroyed by invading forces. And I have spoken to people with memories of the Soviet era: who have tried to explain how it took away free will and have left older generations afraid and deferential to (corrupt) authority, but how it provided a home to each and strongly supported education (neither of which are guaranteed today).

And it seems to me that the result of Moldova’s chaotic history is that there is not enough.
Sometimes there is only rice to eat.
Sometimes there is only a well.
Sometimes there is no heat. And it gets so, so cold in the winter.

In the Book of Ruth, Naomi goes to Moab with her husband and two sons. Some time later, over what seems a fairly short span of time, she loses both her husband and sons. And as she returns, laments her losses and her bitter portion. Not only is she grieving the loss of her family, Naomi is returning to her homeland destitute. A widow, with no children to support her, she will be at the mercy of her distant family.

Thousands of years later, the story for the Moldovan is not so different. As a working-age adult, it is incredibly hard to make a living. The elderly and the young that do not have family support find themselves in Naomi’s place. And when it comes to the young, the orphans, the neglected, it becomes very easy to see how trafficking in persons can take root and grow like an invasive species.

A stark picture.

IMG_2182However, for BOL, the hope is in this upcoming generation, both in preventing trafficking and in changing the politics in the country. BOL utilizes Social Teachers in the schools to teach students about human trafficking, the tactics traffickers use, and the skills to avoid risky situations. They also have the Dream House, which takes in social orphans (e.g. children that are left on their own when their parents live and work abroad because there are no jobs) and Place of Change which runs after-school trainings on avoiding building character for middle-school age students.

BOL’s long-term strategy for changing the political system is through Way To Success: a youth leadership development program. Their hope is that through pouring into youth and developing leaders with integrity, they will be able to create a positive change in the politics and governance of Moldova. Please join our team in prayer that God would raise up a new generation to restore this land.


An English Class to End Slavery?

Every day my mother faces a room full of rowdy middle schoolers. They come from tough home situations, raised by grandparents, dependent on breakfast and lunch provided by the school system, and hungry for connection. Somehow she has the strength to not only “get through” 7+ hours of teaching, but also to provide on-the-fly counseling, life coaching and parenting to these youth.

5,258 miles away, in Chisinau, I experienced a similar taste of the impact that working with youth can have. As part of Beginning of Life’s (www.bol.md) holistic approach to solving the problem of human trafficking in Moldova, BOL runs character development and awareness programs in 40 high schools in Chisinau. The goal for these programs is that they will help shape Moldovan youth into individuals that envision and achieve success for themselves, care for others, and improve Moldova from within. In a country where border police report that nearly 900,000 people left the country and did not return last year, youth who care about contributing to their country’s future success are desperately needed.

Unlike several of their other programs (such as Dream House), BOL’s school programs do not merely target at-risk youth. They target the future politicians, police officers, business men and women, doctors, accountants, and artists that will contribute to economic development, establish moral codes for their generation, and fight against the corruption, poverty, and discrimination of their parents’ generation. The importance of building character and morals is desperately needed in a former soviet state where freedoms were repressed for decades, especially in light of the recent fall of Moldova’s pro-western government threatening what progress has been made.

The students in the Russian-speaking high school that my team of 3 visited today were eager to learn about America–our customs, culture, and political perspectives. We were asked about our opinion on Putin and the crisis in Ukraine, demonstrating their awareness and curiosity of the American perspective. (This of course was coupled with a heavy dose of high school concerns on whether we liked vodka, what parties were like in the US, and why I was still single with no children at age 30.)

From my interactions with these youth, two things were clear.

First, Moldovan youth are in a position to shape and impact their country’s future as never before. BOL is a clear change agent, driving these youth to consider and establish their role in their country’s future. The BOL high school programs are a critical component of the organization’s overall vision not only to eradicate human trafficking in Europe’s poorest country, but also to end corruption in government and law enforcement.

Secondly, I have now confirmed that even though teaching is in my blood, dealing with a bunch of rowdy high schoolers is most definitely not my full time calling!

Please pray for the youth of Moldova and the work of BOL in the Chisinau schools. Pray that God will continue to allow BOL access to and impact on the country’s future leaders and that these youth will help achieve the goal of eradicating human trafficking and ending an era of political corruption and poverty.




Heart and Soul

dreamhouseThe Dream House is a light-filled haven for girls who are at high-risk to be exploited or trafficked. The Director, Ala, explained that many of the girls are “social orphans” whose parents are working abroad and unable to provide care. Some have been completely abandoned or previously lived with relatives who later kicked them out when money became scarce. Though their stories vary, a common theme unites them: they had no one to turn to and would have been easy prey for traffickers without the intervention of Beginning of Life (BOL). The Dream House has been in operation for less than a year and is home to ten teenagers. Over three years the girls learn to take care of themselves, interact effectively with others, and pursue life goals. At the end of the time, each girl is expected to independently provide for herself.

Today our team decided to bake at the Dream House. Many of the residents had been napping upstairs but, as the aroma of fresh sugar cookies wafted through the house, a hurried throng of girls eventually appeared in the kitchen. It was a scene from any high school slumber party: young girls devouring multiple cookies as quickly as possible. One girl asked, “What’s in these? We’ve never made cookies before.” It surprised me that this basic rite of passage for many American girls was completely foreign to these precious Moldovan women–and emphasized just how far from childhood they were.

The girls were shy; after the challenges they have faced, many wear a mask until they feel safe enough to reveal their true selves. Kim and I eventually got the girls to open up about their hobbies. One girl, G, agreed to perform a piano piece for us. She brought us down to the basement and turned on the keyboard to play a lovely and elegant short piece. G was serious and demure throughout the process. Kim and I lamented that we had never learned piano except for two easy songs: “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul.” We sat down to show G our (inferior) skills and, as we stumbled through the songs, G suddenly switched the instrument on the keyboard making our song sound like it was being played on a kazoo!

It sounded terrible but was quickly drowned out by sweet peals of laughter coming from G! The change delighted her so much that she continued to push the instrument button every few seconds, laughing at the new sounds that emerged. Her laughter was infectious and we were soon all giggling uncontrollably. Eventually, G flipped on the percussion button and there was the distinct twang of a cymbal. I was inspired to start a beat and Kim quickly joined with an alternating snare drum. We motioned for G to add to the rhythm and we were soon jamming to a catchy mixture of bass, snare, cymbal, and wood block–all together.

The fun didn’t stop there; Kim played “Heart and Soul” and I encouraged G to sit down next to her to learn. We spent the next fifteen minutes struggling through the piece but laughing at the finger slips and inevitable confusion caused by the language barrier. Eventually, Kim and G were able to play the song in harmony as I sang the lyrics. We were basically ready to go on tour. :)

It was a day of small victories–sugar cookies made without a recipe or measuring cups, an impromptu jam session, and the teaching of a simple song–but it was more than enough. From now on I will think of G every time I hear “Heart and Soul,” and be thankful that she felt safe enough to take her mask off, even if only for a few moments.