When my grandfather was a missionary in China, he would often send me photos and stories of the people he served in the rural villages. Despite living in a corrupt society where food was scarce and the government had no concerns for its people, children were freely playing, women were laughing, and men were chatting over cups of tea.
I remember his photos were so vivid—they captured expressions of dignity and portrayed stories of hope. These stories, however, were also infused with issues my young mind could never comprehend. Oppression, poverty and affliction were so foreign to my carefree childhood.
Still, I was fascinated with these images that offered a glimpse into the intimate lives of the poor. They were filled with stories: stories of overcoming hardship and persevering with dignity. They were filled with life: life made abundant yet marked by evidence of violence. I began to see that these stories were reflections of hope—even in the midst of brokenness.
When I was 12, I received a photograph from my grandfather of a little girl from a poor farming village in rural China. She was around the same age as I was. She was shy, timid and quiet looking with an unforgettable sad gaze.
In the majority world, girls are automatically born into oppression. With the strict rules on the number of children families can have, little boys are favored in order to carry on the family name, while little girls are shamefully labeled: unworthy of life. Baby girls are often aborted or abandoned in forests, especially in poor communities where families can’t afford to care for yet another child. Even if they’re lucky enough to survive, little girls often remain in the background—their stories go unheard.
Knowing of the cultural pressures that often silence these little girls in China, it seemed that her sense of worth was broken—like she hadn’t yet realized that she was made in the image of the God of love. She had a longing to be seen, a story to be told. But the world seemed to pass her by.
This was the context of her story. My grandfather titled this photo, “She reminds me of you.”
And now, 14 years later, I am faced with the haunting realization that this little girl could have been me. And in some sense, I was like her.
Though I didn’t grow up in a poor rural village in China, in looking into her eyes, filled with worry and fear, I began to see myself in her. I identified with her brokenness—sometimes feeling as if my voice was also silenced by self-afflicted lies of unworthiness that crept into my spirit. I too, had labeled myself unworthy of life.
You see, growing up, I was one of those kids. I never wanted to participate in school or in church. I would avoid eye contact by rolling my eyes. When asked a question, I would shrug and not say a word. I would often lash out in anger if I didn’t get my way. I struggled with insecurity and so desperately tried to hide my true self with an attitude. A mask which said, “I hate you. Don’t talk to me.” Nothing in particular ever happened to me: I’ve never been abused, my parents were great, I grew up in the church, but I had the spirit of bitterness, hatred and anger inside of me. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t escape from myself.
I was 14 when my mom became very ill. She had blacked out while out of town, and I remember when she came home a few days later she and my father were in their room behind closed doors. I could hear her sobbing uncontrollably and I knew that she had been diagnosed with cancer.
The thought of losing the person who represented dignity to me in the most quiet, yet powerful of ways broke my spirit. That night, I remember going into my room and for the first time I cried out to God, asking him, “Where are you?” And in that moment of broken forsakeness, I felt an overwhelming sense of nearness when God responded saying, “Because I first loved you, learn to love yourself and love others.”
I’m supposed to love myself? Love myself despite my angry heart? In my fears and doubts, in this relentless cycle of shame? My words of violence and actions of hatred? The lies that I have accepted as truths? The impossible perfection that I try so hard to attain?
“Because I first loved you, learn to love yourself and love others.”
As a self-identified Christian, I neglected to embody the greatest commandment—to love.
My identity was a reflection of a fractured image of the self I had tried to create. The self that was dominated by perfectionism masking the true image—an image I refused to love. I didn’t know what love looked like because I didn’t understand what it meant to be made in the image of God—beauty is found within, where love resides.
Since then, I’ve been on this journey of learning what love looks like.
In a world where beauty is often synonymous with perfection or complexion, voices from poor communities go unheard. Issues of sexual abuse, domestic violence, starvation and inequity are far too prevalent—tempting us to deafen our ears with ignorance, rather than to listen with compassion. Perhaps many of us choose not to hear these stories—afraid to identify with our broken world as an attempt to conceal the brokenness in our own lives.
That was me.
But in this unlikely coexistence, God revealed the beauty of his goodness in the midst of pain and I began to understand what love looks like.
After my mom regained her health, I traveled around the world photographing stories—trying to grasp this concept of love from other people who similarly experienced brokenness in their life. There, I was confronted with the earth-shattering reality of injustice and I began to see Jesus through the eyes of the poor.
When Jesus began his ministry, he quoted a prophecy from Isaiah 61:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me
He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted
To proclaim freedom for the captives and recovery of sight for the blind
To release the oppressed
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
To comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve
To bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes.
the oil of joy instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
And we see this prophecy come into fruition
when he delivered the poor from physical ailments and emotional turmoil,
when he shared a meal with thieves,
when he overturned tables of greed and corruption,
when he advocated against the execution of a woman guilty of prostitution,
when he painted a picture of love through the example of an immigrant,
when he looked directly into the eyes of a blind man and asked, “What can I do for you?”,
when he said violence was not an option even for the ones who approached him by sword,
when he first revealed his resurrected body to, of all people, a woman.
This is what Love looks like.
Jesus identified most closely with the poor, and that’s evident in how he loved people—the outcast, the immigrant, the vulnerable, the exploited, the abused. His love extends outside of the boundaries of church walls, outside of our common accents and the confines or cultural identity.
Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. In his humanity he experienced brokenness in hunger, in thirst, in weariness, frustration and despair. In his divinity, he turned these seemingly broken situations into reminders of his beauty—the perfect example of love.
As reflections of his image, we are meant to do the same—to identify with the brokenness of humanity so that we can experience the fullness of his beauty.
In John 17:26, Jesus prays for all believers, he prays, “I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
This is the embodiment of Love—
To share good news with the poor
To heal the brokenhearted
To extend grace to the imprisoned and restore sight for the blind
To give freedom to those who are oppressed
To mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice
To replace ashes of sorrow with crowns of beauty
To proclaim that this is the year that his justice will prevail
There, in community with the world’s poor—we come face to face with Jesus.
Five years ago, I went to Zambia for the first time. I met a girl named Jean. She reminded me so much of myself when I was 14 years old: the attitude, rolling of the eyes and smart remarks. I saw something in her—that behind the attitude was a quiet insecurity. There was something about her that seemed to scream out in silence and the attitude was only a facade to mask the pain. I remember one night, we were walking home from dinner at a neighbor’s house. She held my hand and leaned in close.
She whispered, “My stomach is in pain.”
“Was it something you ate?” I asked.
“No, it hurts like this every day…since I was 13—a really sharp pain as if someone is stabbing me.”
“Have you ever gone to the clinic to get it checked?”
“No, I’ll be fine. Forget about it.”
I stopped behind the rest of the group and looked at her in the eye. Her eyes diverted from mine.
“Really, what’s going on?”
With a sigh to muster up her courage, she began:
“OK, I’ll tell you my story—but I hope you will understand.”
On her way home from school one day, she was attacked by three men who had knives. They approached her saying, “If you don’t come with us, we’re going to slaughter you.” They took her to a nearby bush; one man raped her. They attempted to gang rape her, but she found a piece of metal on the floor, hit them off and fled. She told me the experience was unbearably traumatic and she couldn’t tell anyone what had happened because of the stigma of rape in Zambia. She feared not only the perpetrators but rejection from her community as well. Feeling overwhelmed with a burden, she could not share, she overdosed on medication. When that didn’t have an effect, she went to the kitchen and took a knife to her wrist.
She showed me the scar that ran deep.
Deep like her desire to feel whole again.
WHERE ARE YOU?
Again I asked God, “Where are you?
You who are all loving, compassionate, merciful and gracious, where are you in the midst of this brokenness?
Where are you in the lives of these children who are suffering from unspeakable violence?
Where is your protection over your children, God—where are you?
But I feel that God is turning those questions on me: Nikole—where is your love for my children?
Where is your compassion for the innocent? Where is your mercy for the poor?
Where is your grace for those who are exploited?
Where is your advocacy for the insecure? Where are you?
As I’ve asked this question of God so many times, he softly reminds me that—he is there.
In the tears, in the pain and the woundedness of our world—he is here.
Nearer to us than ever before—he is the embodiment of Love.
In some ways, I can identify with Jean and the little girl in China. I identify with their fears, thoughts of inadequacy and loss of self-worth.
I identify with their dreams to achieve greatness, their aspirations to help others and desires to be made whole.
I identify with their fears of voicing their stories but somehow finding the courage to unveil brokenness as a thing of beauty.
It is in these seemingly dark places that I’ve been a witness to hope—from death to life, dreams are birthed and lives, reborn.
I’ve seen physical chains broken for the innocent and emotional chains broken for the guilty.
I’ve seen people in oppression realize that they are no longer victims but survivors as they begin to recognize that dignity is an inherent gift from God.
FREELY IN HOPE
By identifying with Jean’s story, I began to learn what this meant.
Compelled by her desire to heal from her past and pursue her academic dreams, I started an organization called Freely in Hope—we equip survivors and advocates to lead in ending the cycle of sexual violence by providing scholarships for high school and college, psychological counseling and health care. Our hope is that they may be liberated from trauma to pursue their vocational dream—their calling to impact the world around them.
In advocating for justice together with survivors of unspeakable violence, I began to better understand what love could look like.
What would it look like if Jean had access to a better and safer education outside of the slums, so that instead of being reminded of her traumatic past, she would be reminded of her worth? What if her story could inspire other little girls to dream again?
What would it look like if little girls like Jentrix had the opportunity to go straight to High School, keeping her safe from the pressures of selling sex in exchange for cup of rice?
What would it look like if Clair were given new opportunities outside of the brothels to pursue her academic dreams?
What would it look like if Martha, a single mother, was encouraged to graduate from High School and start her own business even when society tells her she’s worthless?
What would it look like for Eunice, a mother to a child born out of rape, used her vocation as a counselor to help other young women find healing?
What would it look like if Mary could actually become the first in her family to graduate from High School, graduate from College and become a lawyer to advocate for others in oppression?
What would it look like if Winnie could pursue her dream of being a teacher to educate and inspire girls in her rural village?
Or if all girls had access to education in a safe space so that they could achieve their dreams?
In working together with young women who are survivors of sexual violence, like Jean, we’ve seen that their dreams have been shattered by trauma and stigmas have outcasted them from society. But when they’re given the opportunities to pursue those dreams again, they begin to realize that dignity cannot be taken by violence, poverty or oppression. Brokenness is not something to be hidden—but unveiled as thing of beauty.
After graduating from high school, Jean has been speaking at churches across Zambia to share her testimony of redemption. Her dream is to help other girls heal from the trauma of sexual violence by sharing her rewritten story filled with hope.
She later told me, “Do you know what stopped me from taking my life? Even though I questioned God’s presence, after I cut myself, I realized that my blood was the blood of Jesus. Because he loves me, I need to love myself and love others.”
May we also recognize that our lives have value—that we are loved. And because of that love, Jesus gives us the gift of seeing beautiful reflections of his image through the eyes of the poor. As we learn to identify with the brokenness of our world, we begin to experience a greater sense of Love himself.
In John 14:12, Jesus promises this truth: anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these…”
He continues in verse 21, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”
As we live into God’s immense love for us, we begin to ask a new question: what would it look like for us?
What if we were reminded to not allow culture to define out worth, but to recognize that dignity is an inherent gift from God?
If we had no fears of failure or shame, but instead had the courage to voice our stories no matter how broken it seems?
If we created new narratives of what God is doing in our lives, that we may inspire others through our rewritten stories?
If we no longer suffered injustice silently, but came alongside of our global brothers and sisters in the fight against oppression?
What if we always saw Jesus through the eyes of the poor—allowing their dreams to become ours?
As we are all made in the image of God to reflect his love, let us respond to the brokenness of the world. Let us be reminded that because he first loved his, we are anointed to love ourselves and others around us.
As I am reminded of that little girl in China, and as I am reminded of Jean, let us all be reminded of each other—our stories, our worth, our voices—we are reflections of beauty even in the midst of brokenness.