Every thirty minutes, a woman is raped in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital—but this number only estimates reported incidents. Too many are unreported—silenced by the stigma of sexual violence, these young school girls are but victims of societal lies. And so they assume blame—forced to remain silent until their bellies begin to swell. Showing evidence of a crime they did not commit, they are accused of promiscuity, kicked out of schools and shunned by their communities. Dreams they once held onto are put to death.
I started advocating together with survivors of sexual violence based on a story that was not my own. I found that through the power of story, I learned to identify in the similarities that make us all human. The emotions that arise out of all of us—guilt, shame, self-hatred and loss of worth—are universal points of identification. Through the years of hearing story after story of trauma upon trauma, I began to identify more and more with these stories filled with utter grief yet marked with a tremendous sense of hope.
While I was working hard to heal their wounds I found that their courageous lives were actually healing mine. There, I found that the voices arising from seemingly broken places are the most powerful expressions of justice.
As a photographer and filmmaker, I have documented stories of leprosy in Vietnam, taught storytelling to foster children in Los Angeles, captured portraits of women escaping systems of gross abuse in Kolkata, witnessed men find forgiveness after one murdered the family of the other in Rwanda, and danced on rooftops with children who are survivors of inexpressible pain in Nepal.
I was confronted with the earth-shattering reality of injustice and I began to see Jesus through the eyes of the poor.
The paradox is this—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. Over and over again, I’ve seen my friends in oppression realize that they are no longer victims but survivors as they begin to recognize that dignity cannot be taken away by violence, poverty or injustice.
Dignity is an inherent gift from God.
Almost five years ago, I began to learn what this looked like through Eunice’s story, an aspiring counselor in Kenya. She and I were the same age, 21, at the time that we met. At 18 she had dreams of going to college, but being a woman, she was expected to sell donuts on the side of the road to earn a living for the family. So she pursued this dream alone, and on her way from the rural village to the Universities in Nairobi she was raped and became pregnant. The rapist threatened to kill her if she told anyone. He had attempted to silence and shame her—ridiculing her for pursuing an impossible dream. She was kicked out of her parents house, accused of being a promiscuous slut and she nearly had an abortion when God stopped her saying, “This baby is going to be a blessing to you.” She raised her baby in the slums, washed peoples laundry, cleaned houses and somehow saved her pennies to enroll herself at Kenya Polytechnic University. She had defied all odds and was preparing to take her final exams of her first semester in college. While she was fighting against societal expectations that were meant to oppress, she was equipping herself to become a counselor. Her dream was to heal the wounds of other survivors of rape—giving them freedom to hope again.
She took her final exams and rose to the top of her class.
The power of her story birthed Freely in Hope—an organization reimagining what it would look like to partner alongside of survivors and advocates to end the cycle of sexual violence.
Through the examples of courageous women like Eunice, I have learned from their authentic voices that speak truth into dark places—it is the voices arising from oppression that provide the reality of hope and the truth of redemption. In seemingly broken places, I have been reminded to listen to the voices of the oppressed, seeing that brokenness is not something to be concealed—but unveiled as thing of beauty.
The paradox of pain, trauma and violent oppression is that hope is ever present—this is the embodiment of justice. In refusing to submit to systems that oppress, we cling to the hope that only Christ can offer—hoping, waiting, praying, laboring for systems of systematic oppression to be overturned.
And Eunice today? She is finishing up her bachelors in Counseling Psychology and graduates at the end of this year! She works with an international organization counseling prostitutes addicted to narcotics in the slums. As the proud mother of her 6-year-old son, Eunice is the embodiment of justice and hope.
In the pursuit of justice, 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 our worth, but to recognize that dignity is an inherent gift from God?
What 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?
I believe that this is what justice looks like—advocating alongside of survivors in the fight to end the cycle of violence, oppression and gross injustice.
Together at The Justice Conference, let us also arise in solidarity and platform the dreams of the those we are advocating with.
As I am reminded of Eunice, let us all be reminded of each other—our stories, our voices, our dreams—we are created in the image of God. We are created to embody justice—giving each other the freedom to hope again.