Today is Epiphany, when the church remembers the encounter of the infant Jesus with the Magi, the inquisitive foreigners who came seeking God made incarnate in Bethlehem. It’s the feast day of globalization, of faith overcoming borders, a reminder to those who seek to follow Jesus that our paths of discipleship will lead us to some strange places.
Because your financial support makes possible my work as a United Methodist missionary, I have the privilege of frequently crossing borders in order to bring back words and images of how people struggle to live the fullness of life promised in the Gospels. While the Magi crossed borders bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, I take a camera and a notepad. Just as the Magi took home an amazing story of what they had encountered, so I return with narratives of empowerment, whether it’s of the church combating human trafficking in Hawaii or welcoming Syrian refugees in the Middle East.
The Magi also dealt with political systems that feared the truth and thus threatened those who challenged their control with death. Often the people whose lives I document face similar threats, and several times I’ve received heartbreaking word that someone I interviewed was killed shortly after my visit. Personally, I face few real risks in my work beyond jet lag and amoebas, but on November 27 I was beaten by the Egyptian National Police at the edge of Tahrir Square. Two Egyptian photographers were similarly beaten the same day; one of them had to be hospitalized. It was a harsh reminder of the precarious nature of truth-telling in many parts of the world. No wonder the Magi snuck out of town.
Yet the Magi also, I suspect, encountered incredible hospitality when they met the holy family. That’s a universal characteristic of the poor, to welcome the stranger. I encounter this constantly, whether in displaced Roma communities in Serbia, where I went twice this past year, or in a village in Mindanao following Typhoon Bopha where Filipino families were busy untwisting the rubble that was once their homes. In response to my nosy questions they stopped, found a chair in the rubble to offer me, and sent their child off to buy the stranger a bottle of water. Such hospitality is a gift the poor offer to us. They have no gold or frankincense, but they have a chair and a bottle of water. Moreover, they have hope, something we in our communities have often misplaced amid our abundance and cynicism.
The Magi doubtless saw their adventure as a blessing, just as I consider my work as a missionary an incredible privilege. As always, I write with appreciation for making this possible, and to thank you for making the connections–spiritual, economic, political–that link your own community with Bethlehem, both the occupied Palestinian town and countless other villages and towns where ordinary people are plagued by poverty and repression. The Magi stepped out of their comfort zone and crossed borders to find what awaited them in Bethlehem, and so we are called to take new risks as we engage in mission. The Magi then returned home to report on what they had found, just as all of us called to proclaim the earthshaking implications of this day of Epiphany.
I’m not Waldo, but I get around. Thanks to your support during the last six months, my work of researching and photographing stories took me to Thailand, South Sudan, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Cambodia, Serbia, Germany, Macedonia, the Philippines and Bulgaria. In the United States, I traveled to Alaska, Hawaii and Washington, DC, to cover stories. In addition, I gave a lecture on journalism and conflict at the University of Oregon Law School, spoke to a retreat of Church World Service staff from around the world, and shared a public discussion on mission with Thomas Kemper, the new general secretary of Global Ministries. In between, I cherished my own bed in Yakima.
Paul's coming to town
Every three years, United Methodist missionaries take a few weeks to visit the congregations that support their ministry, and I’ll be doing that in October and November of 2013. I’ll share some images from where I’ve been lately, and we can talk about what mission means today in your community and around the world. Most of my itineration will be on the west coast of the U.S. I’ll be in touch with you in April to begin making arrangements. Stay tuned!
Have you ever looked at one of my photographs and wondered what was going on at the moment I captured it? Hey, sometimes I wonder the same thing! Now you have a chance to read some of the back story in the “Picture of the Week” feature on my website. Every week I choose one of my favorite images, and write about what was going on at the moment I captured it. It’s my chance to tell some stories that otherwise no one would ever hear, and to engage in an unfiltered rant about photography and its use by church agencies and others. Check it out.
Are you connected?
Your congregation sponsors a variety of ministries, both locally and beyond the borders of your town or neighborhood. Does your website show those connections? Several of you have a link on your congregation’s website to my blog. If you haven’t done that yet, it’s a great way to link your own online community to some of the issues that affect people in the world that’s also your parish. And you will be reminding people of where their mission dollars go. So tell your webmaster to add a link to kairosphotos.com. And if you’ve got a Facebook page, use it to occasionally link to blog posts and other content on my blog. If you become my friend (facebook.com/globallens), you’ll be able to keep even closer tabs on my work.
In addition, you’re encouraged to use images from my online photo archive for your website, bulletin covers or digital worship backgrounds. Browse the photos, and if you're interested in using any, let me know. It's free for supporting congregations!
Where are Paul's photos?
Want to see some of the latest of my images from places like Lebanon, Cambodia and South Sudan?