Last night, I went out for dinner in the Old Market with a few of my close collegiate friends. Our outing was a bit of a momentous occasion for me. Here I was, post-Africa, away from the empathetic fold of my Backpack Journalism family, about to reconnect with the friends I hadn’t seen since the end of spring semester, and by extension, the Creighton community I had left behind in order to seek out global relationships and bear witness to human suffering. On paper, this reunion was a litmus test for my reintegration into young American society – or at least, proof of my capacity for camouflaging with what I like to call “former normalcy.” I recognized that my companions might not be up for any challenging conversations or personal revelations about what I had experienced in Uganda, and so I was determined to resume our friendships with patience and an open mind. If push came to shove, I was even willing to pretend that I hadn’t spent the last several weeks battling guilt, depression and disorientation over the trauma I was exposed to on the margins.
But of course, despite my carefully laid designs and premeditated persona, I wasn’t able to mask my ruined self. I suppose I haven’t yet absorbed the lesson that “man plans and God laughs.”
As I’d predicted, nobody asked me about my trip beyond the politely superficial “How was Africa?” Though I knew it was coming, that question caught me completely off-guard. How could I even begin to effectively articulate the emotional rollercoaster, the raw humanity, the transformational spiritual journey that was Africa? How could I possibly condense such a monolithic, life-changing experience into a precise, bite-sized narrative for people whose inquiry was not born from genuine interest, but instead out of obligation to acknowledge that lumbering elephant in the room? We asked only to show you that we noticed your absence, but we hope you don’t bring down the mood by rambling about injustices from across the globe that we had no part in, understand?
So, I mumbled a few vague sentences about Backpack Journalism, half-hoping somebody might take the bait and pry for a deeper response. Nobody did.
For the rest of the evening, my friends chattered about budding romances, academic victories and summer blockbusters, while I found myself drifting further away from the discussion and into my own bleak thoughts. I couldn’t stop internally labeling their weekly news and drama as trivial. Whenever a friend revealed the pivotal turn they’d taken with their significant other or a mild blip from their daily routine, my mind wandered back to the harsher moments in Africa.
“Did you hear that so-and-so are dating now?”
Girls as young as twelve-years-old are being married off to men in their thirties or fifties because parents only see their daughters as wealth. Sometimes, relatives kidnap these girls from school or threaten them at gunpoint because they’ve already eaten the dowery of cows.
“I needed to stress bake today, but I couldn’t because I didn’t have any eggs.”
Refugees stand in lines for days to receive their monthly rations from food distribution sites, even though the grain they’re given is rotten and practically inedible. If they forget their registration cards or miss the distribution days, the chances are extremely high that they’ll starve to death. Already, the rations aren’t enough to prevent the children from starving in the settlements.
“I’m so sick of our country’s divisive politics!”
The rebels and government soldiers in South Sudan are beating, maiming, and killing innocent people without discrimination. We met a refugee whose house was bombed by soldiers because he was neighbors with the opposition leader. He is only one of the 1.4 million refugees who fled into Uganda after civil war broke out in South Sudan.
I knew I wasn’t being fair. I knew I was choosing to be the downer friend. But I couldn’t staunch the feelings of isolation welling in my heart. Surrounded by the people I loved and valued as instrumental characters in my college experience, I felt utterly alone.
After my friends dropped me off at my apartment, I did the only thing I can think of doing when I’m feeling upset and profoundly lost: I called my mom.
I don’t know what it is about mothers, but they must possess divine powers because they always say exactly what you need to hear. Mom is no exception. I swear, she’s equipped with a sixth sense that registers my thoughts before I voice them (or become conscious of their existence). Sometimes, I think she knows me better than I know myself.
After listening to my frustrations over the phone, Mom told me that she’d suspected I would feel sequestered from my friends upon returning home.
“You just got back from one of the most eye-opening experiences of your life, and as you said in your blog, you’ve been ruined because of it. There’s going to be a cognitive divide now between you and the people who haven’t taken the opportunity to explore what the world has to offer beyond sightseeing. But that’s also just a fact of life; our personal histories are filled with unique adventures, tragedies, and junctures that separate us from one another. The thing you have to remember is that while you’ve lost some of the innocence you had before, you’ve also gained access to a special community of individuals who understand exactly what you’ve been through.”
She is absolutely right. As much as I feel disconnected from some of my American associates, I have also become strikingly close to the Backpack Journalism team. We’ve formed a rare bond with one another, an unparalleled kinship that can never be severed by time or circumstance. I’ve also developed a mutual understanding with people I’ve never spoken to, friends of my parents or extended family members who have done missionary work in Africa, or who have left the comfort of their homes for service on the margins. These acquaintances have been with me throughout this journey, covering me with love as I’ve endured a suffering they know, leaving me encouraging messages and reassurances that I am not alone. We are in this together.
“So, you’ve witnessed social injustice and trauma in a way you never have before. What are you going to do now?”
What am I going to do now? There’s the million dollar question.
Actually, I’ve already given this question a lot of thought, even before we finished wrapping our film in Uganda. In my first blog, I explained that I felt compelled to bear witness for the people who have been pushed aside to the margins; I had a growing fire for providing a voice to the voiceless. Now that I’ve reached the other side of Backpack Journalism and become cognizant of the real emotional toll witnessing presses on your soul, have I been scared away from pursuing this kind of work? Has reality proved that I’m not strong enough to be present with people who are suffering?
The answer requires me to be brutally honest with myself. And I’ve realized – after letting the question settle for long time in my mind and my heart – that I have, without a doubt, found God’s calling for my life.
I am a storyteller. I am a journalist. And I am meant to tell the stories of those who have been forgotten by this world.
After earning my Bachelor’s degree, I plan to return to the margins as soon as I can. Whether that looks like joining Jesuit Volunteer Core, taking on a journalism fellowship, or discovering my own means, I’m dedicating my life to being with the people who need help most; to utilizing my gifts as a writer to restore their human dignity; to show marginalized individuals that yes, your story is important and you matter.
I also feel like such a response is my spiritual gift. Throughout our Backpack Journalism expedition, we asked our interviewees to share how mercy manifested through their work with refugees (Pope Francis called the Church to a mission of mercy and compassion in 2016, and as Jesuit-educated scholars, we were interested in seeing how people translated his message into action). From its basic definition, mercy means showing compassion or forgiveness toward someone rather than exacting punishment or harm against them. But mercy also means having sensitivity toward others’ suffering and willingly giving yourself to attend to their needs. I believe that such mercy is possible through God’s guidance and my compliance, and that Christ has called me to a lead a life of sacrificial love for others.
When I shared my newfound resolve with Mom, part of me expected her to object. After all, I am her only daughter and I am essentially going into the danger zone, committing myself to a potentially treacherous lifestyle for the sake of witnessing. I’d completely understand if my parents were uncomfortable with the risk (although, I would still pursue such journalism even if they were adamant about me staying away from world crises).
However, her next words were the most empowering thing she has ever said to me:
“Isabelle, I believe that this is what you were meant to do. God’s given you a gift, and you’re using it for His works. Wherever you choose to go, whatever story you decide to pursue, your father and I support you.”
Backpack Journalism has finally come to an end. We left, returned and worked hard to create a documentary worthy of telling the refugees’ experience. We’ve grown so much through this program, and I hope this program has grown through us.
I concluded my first blog with Isaiah 6:8 as a way to open my heart for the experiences God would give me. He sent me, and it was the most important work I have ever done in my life. Now, I am ready to continue it.
Send me again, Lord. Send me again.