Story Matters

With thanks to the Giffords


A couple of years ago, Jars of Clay and I found ourselves on our way to Key Largo, Florida, where Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford had offered to host a fundraiser for Blood:Water in their Ocean Reef home. The exclusive gated community towered along the edge of the kind of beaches that I had only seen in magazines. We commuted by golf carts, dined with millionaires, and had access to the most perfect coastal air. The Gifford’s home was stunning, their friends were so kind and welcoming, and yet I couldn’t feel further from where I had just been. image

One week earlier, I was tucked beneath the mosquito net of my bed in a Kenyan village, listening to the bloodcurdling screams of a child in pain. Our clinic was just a few hundred feet from us, and you don’t have to listen too closely to know what helplessness sounds like. A two-year-old boy in desperate need of an IV had severe dehydration. It was nearly impossible to find intravenous access on his body. Baby Alfred wailed as multiple attempts were made on his tiny little hands. Eventually, the clinicians succeeded and breathed a sigh of relief, and they moved on to the next patient. Our over-worked and exhausted clinicians served through the night as the hours eked by. Every bed was full. Patients continued to come through the night, whether on the back of a motorcycle as it hastily passed along the dirt path to the hospital doors or on one of the multiple runs of the hospital ambulance.

On most days, the noises in the village are the songs of small triumphs, murmurs of hope through the daily work of transforming this community toward health and healing. But that night, staring into the darkness, through the sounds of rushing vehicles, crying babies and colleagues shuffling through the dorm to grab juice and bread for the overwhelmed nurses, I could only hear the deep, dark voices in my heart that spoke about defeat and injustice and inadequacy. Nine babies died while I was there that month, and then I returned home to a different world.

If you think too hard about how wide the gap for the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor actually is, it can make you a very cynical person. It can feel discouraging, disgusting even. But there in the hospitality of the Gifford’s family room, Kathie Lee interviewed me in front of her friends and asked me to share about the people I knew in Africa. I thought of baby Alfred and the overworked nurses and the occupied beds. And I leaned into my calling of knowing and loving people from opposite sides of the world, and introducing them to one another. And then, in a way that only she could do, Kathie Lee made a powerful and beautiful invitation to her community to give generously to our friends in Africa. And they did, almost as much as any group of people had for Blood:Water before.

No one is disqualified from responding to the love of mankind, and that’s the beautiful thing about love — it binds us to one another, regardless of what station in life we are in. In light of the recent passing of Frank Gifford, I give thanks for his life and for the spirit of generosity and love that both he and his lovely wife embody. I pray for his family as they grieve his passing, and I hope to God they know how deeply their generosity, advocacy, and faith affect these least of these.



Ripple Effect


Have you ever found yourself Googling or Facebook searching for someone from your past life? For someone you once knew, but as time as passed, you knew not where to find them? Twelve years ago, I sat in a small room of my college commons and heard the personal stories of two individuals who were HIV positive. One was a man named Bill whose body continued to betray him from the intense regimens of medication (Ironically, the side effects of the medications were as unbearable as the symptoms themselves). And the other was a woman named Julie who shared what it was like to become HIV positive from a blood transfusion after the birth of her daughter.

At the time, I had been studying the effects of HIV on the immune system in my medical microbiology class, but this was the first time I had heard from people who were living through it.

Their stories were powerful to me. They were so human, so broken, so honest, so real. The science of the virus morphed into the stories of people. I remember, in particular, the audacity with which Julie spoke. She had said things like,

"It doesn't matter how I contracted HIV, even though people see my circumstance as more innocent than that of others. I don't want to be treated differently. We are all in it together." 


"I had 3 children, and I was told I would only have five years to live. But I decided I wasn't going to live like I was dying. I was going to live it fully. "

As a college student searching for purpose, Julie and Bill's stories were the spark that sent me finding stories of other HIV positive people around the globe. It's what led me to Blood:Water.

I have often wondered about Bill and Julie. I mostly wondered if they were still alive. And a year ago, instead of wondering, I did as most of us do when we wonder where in the world someone might be. I took my questions to Google. I grabbed my college notebook to find the last names of Bill and Julie (yes, I still have my college notebooks - ultimate nerdom, I know), and this is what I found:

Bill: The only thing that came up was that he was a member of the Spokane HIV/AIDS Speakers Bureau in Spokane. There was no clear date to ascertain whether or not he was still speaking, or still alive. My search ended there.

Julie: She was also listed in the Spokane HIV/AIDS Speakers Bureau. But different than Bill, there was another link with her name in it - an article from Spokane's Inlander. It was confusing at first because the article was about a guy who was part of a Seattle-based hip hop duo called Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. (Before you all go judge me about not knowing who they were, this was before they had become a national sensation. Okay, you're right. I probably still wouldn't have known).

As I read through the story, it became clear that the Julie I was looking for was Ryan Lewis' mom. And she was alive. And was continuing to relentlessly advocate for HIV/AIDS issues. In an act of serendipity, the article revealed that I already knew Julie's husband, Scott, through our nonprofit circles. I found an old email from him, and I reached out.

Last week, I went to dinner with Julie and Scott in Seattle. I shared with Julie how the courage of her story more than a decade ago was a significant catalyst in my life. That her testimony compelled me to find the testimonies of others.

That the ripple effect meant more than 60,000 HIV positive Africans with a second chance at life and flourishing - and nearly a million people in AIDS-affected communities with clean water. That in the moments when you just don't know if your story means anything past sympathy or inspiration, it can mean so much more.

Take the time to circle back to those who've inspired you - and thank them. And pay attention to the way your own life and story can have a ripple effect beyond your wildest imagination.

ps. When I showed Julie the notebook, I asked about Bill. He, too, is alive. I can't wait to go meet him and thank him, too.


To learn more about Julie's work, go here.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have partnered with Julie in the 30/30 Project.



Let Your Life Surprise You


  This week, I received an email from one of my best friends, Autumn, who is living and working in South Sudan amidst one of today's most pressing humanitarian crises. Refugee camps are overpopulated with men, women and children who lack clean water, sanitation, and sufficient nutrition - causing outbreaks of cholera, hepatitis and impending famine. And outside the camps, violence continues with killings in hospitals, churches and mass rape.

And my sweet, dear Autumn is on the front lines doing her part to address the immediate needs of our South Sudanese brothers and sisters, despite the horrific conditions.

This was her mode of transportation from a recent visit into the field.


But there's something you should know about Autumn: Humanitarian work was not her original career path. It wasn't even her secondary or tertiary path.

In our early twenties when we lived together, Autumn worked for a music label, a recording studio, and even as a makeup artist. While she gleaned great life experience, she continued to be dissatisfied with how she was spending her days.

This is us, with our other roommate Amy (whose incredible story I will tell you about later).


Autumn continued to ask the good and hard questions about vocation and calling. And then she took brave steps to actualize her convictions to be in proximity with the poor.

She left Nashville for a job with a social business in California, applied to grad school at London School of Economics, began internships with major NGOs in the UK and has found her way to coordinating emergency responses to water, sanitation and hygiene in South Sudan's refugee camps.

Her most recent email stated:

"Most days I feel completely inadequate to lead the response efforts in such a crucial way as this. Other days I feel blessed that I get to be here in this moment, and there is nowhere else I would rather be but be in the midst of all that is South Sudan. I feel like when I'm here I'm seeing a picture of love, suffering and life that most people don't, and I'm so challenged and changed by it daily." 

I am so proud of Autumn, for being courageous and persistent. For listening to her heart and following that calling. For serving in a moment in time even when the rest of the world's tragedies have overshadowed the very real and horrific one that she is living in. And for choosing hope even when everything in her days tries to convince her otherwise.

As I remember our years together in our Nashville apartment filled with angst and uncertainty about calling and direction, I don't think Autumn could have imagined that this is where she would be today.

Don't count yourself out of the tugging convictions within. Listen to them, seek them out. And let your life surprise you.


(This is in one of the camps that have flooded. And because of open defecation and poor sanitation services, she's literally knee deep in it. With a smile and all.)


More information about the organizations Autumn has been working for and how to help, go here and here.

(All photos courtesy of Autumn Petersen)

What It's About

I greeted Saturday morning with a bad attitude. My alarm went off at 5:15a, just 25 minutes after I had gone back to bed after nursing Jude. I threw my bags together and hustled out the door to join the Jars guys in a van with a trailer, headed for Atlanta.

We had a benefit concert that night, and I was slated to make the pitch from stage. Though I speak in front of people frequently, I still feel anxious and ill-prepared for such a task. It had been a long week, and I just wanted to spend my Saturday morning curled up on the couch with my baby and my husband.

The goal for the night was to raise $10,000 - enough money to provide a well for a community in Zambia. With an expected audience of 1000, I planned to ask each person to consider donating $10. It seemed a simple way to get there, not asking too much of anyone.

But when the opening act began, the auditorium was pretty empty.

Like awkward empty.


Like this was supposed to be the most happening place on a Saturday night, but you were duped because everyone apparently went somewhere else kind of empty.

I felt duped, too.

"We can't ask for a well tonight," I told my colleague Jake. We'd be asking for too much. Reluctantly, I walked on the stage and told the scattered crowd about a community called Koloko, in Zambia.

I pulled these photos up, for the audience to see. They were taken that day by our team in Zambia.

There's Josh rolling the drum of water.


Community members use this to transport their water, over 2.5 miles away from their homes.

There's Courtney, accompanying a mama and her child on the walk for water.


Children under the age of 5 are dying unnecessarily from water-borne illnesses.

And here's the dream, I told them: that walking miles for water would no longer be necessary, that preventable diseases and deaths would disappear. A well could help them do that.


Despite the fact that I knew we wouldn't get the full $10,000 that we needed that night, I boldly asked the audience that we try.

So we passed the popcorn buckets through the aisles, and people placed dollar bills into the buckets. It was a beautiful sign of generosity.

But it wasn't going to be enough.

Until a man pulled me aside and handed me a blank check to get us to the $10,000.

A blank check.

In ten years of asking for money on behalf of my friends in Africa, I have never been given a blank check. It was a shower of mercy for my doubtful heart. A lifetime of water for a community we love.

It's moments like these where my narrow worldview continues to change because it's not about the thousands or the crowds or being in the hippest place on a Saturday night. It's not about demanding a guarantee of success before giving up a precious day for myself.

It's about remembering that God is bigger than our wildest dreams. That sometimes you don't need a thousand new supporters; but rather, just the faithful ones. It's about the stories we tell. And the faithful actions we live out despite our unbelief.

I guess, too, it's about being bold enough to ask, even when it feels foolish. And it's about letting love surprise you - because when I went back on stage to announce the good news, my colleague Michael ran up to tell me that another person had just donated $10,000.

And just like that, this small but mighty crowd had done something extraordinary. Koloko was now bound up in us, and us in them. But we had to have the audacity to ask. My own doubtful heart turned upside down.

Responding to Beauty

"Fall is staggering in, right on schedule with its baggage of chilly nights, macabre holidays, and spectacular heart-stoppingly beautiful leaves. Soon the leaves will start cringing on the trees, and roll up in clenched fists before they actually fall off. Dry seedpods will rattle like tiny gourds. But first there will be weeks of gushing color so bright, so pastel, so confettilike...

An odd feature of the colors is that they don't seem to have any special purpose. We are predisposed to respond to their beauty, of course. They shimmer with the colors of sunset, spring flowers, the tawny buff of a colt's pretty rump, the shuddering pink of a blush. Animals and flowers color for a reason - adaptation to their environment - but there is no adaptive reason for leaves to color so beautifully in the fall any more than there is for the sky or ocean to be blue. It's just one of the haphazard marvels the planet bestows every year."

- Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

The Call of Stories

Our stories matter - yours, mine, theirs. Everyone has a story that is wildly complex, beautiful and redemptive. Yet we forget to pay attention to the call of stories because we have reduced ourselves and others to sound bites, profile pages and 120 character expressions. We lack self-awareness to see the story of our own lives; kindness to put ourselves into the stories of those we know; and imagination to consider the stories of those whom we do not know. In last week's prayer, I begged God to equip us with moral imagination to have real discourse. I am referring to Robert Coles' book The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination. Coles is a psychiatrist and Harvard Professor who champions the importance of one another's story. He understands the unique value of each person's narrative, and urges each and every one of us to dive into the narratives of great literature as well as to consider other people's stories as we conduct ourselves in relationships, politics, vocation and faith. I fear that our discourse with one another will suffer empty and superficial pettiness if we are too blinded to discover the sacred value of each other's stories.

Here are some of his words that have encouraged me to build my own moral imagination as I interact with others in the world:

"Their story, yours, mine - it's what we all carry with us on this trip we take, and we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them."

"The story of some of us who become owners of a professional power and a professional vocabulary is the familiar one of moral thoughtlessness. We brandish our authority in a ceaseless effort to reassure ourselves about our importance, and we forget to look at our own warts and blemishes, so busy are we cataloguing those in others."

"Behind the door of every contented, happy man there ought to be someone standing with a little hammer and continually reminding him with a knock that there are unhappy people, that however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws, and trouble will come to him - illness, poverty, losses, and then no one will see or hear him, just as now he neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer. The happy man lives at his ease, faintly fluttered by small daily cares, like an aspen in the wind - and all is well. How do we find that 'hammer' for ourselves?"

"We shrug off, shake off, walk away from, close our eyes to the world of unhappiness. Checkhov notes the commonness of this maneuver: we stifle any inclination our conscience has to direct not only our awareness, but our conduct."

How do you think we can cultivate this moral imagination into our discourse with one another?

The Sacred Act of Remembering

It's amazing how quickly we can forget our own stories. We are inundated with the immediate pressures of today, and if we are lucky, we find time to look ahead with vision for the weeks or year to come. But how much time do we spend considering where we have come from? I realize that I have not spent enough time remembering my own story.

Last weekend, James and I drove several hours through winding mountain roads to find ourselves in a secret garden and quaint lodge at the foot of the Smoky Mountains. We joined an intimate gathering of some staff, board members, Jars of Clay and their spouses, and special donors to the organization.

In the serenity of nature, simplicity and community, our stories were drawn out of us - stories of what Dan saw on his first visit to Africa, of writing the name Blood:Water Mission on the plane home, of a wise and thoughtful friend who ensured that Jars of Clay and I meet, of what it was like for me as a college student to hear their vision, and of the 25-page proposal I wrote on my Thanksgiving break to suggest how we could start Blood:Water Mission.

Stories of driving across the country to Tennessee with my dad, moving into the basement of the Haseltine's home, beginning work in the basement of an old church in Franklin, our first tears together in an AIDS hospice in South Africa, our first dollars raised, our struggles to raise more, and the people who came along at the perfect time to keep this mission alive.

There is delight and wonder in remembering. "What we were thinking?" we asked ourselves. "Can you believe we made it through that?" we wondered soberly. "Do you remember the surprise of that first time we collected dollar bills for Kenya?" we smiled.

On Saturday afternoon, Dan, Charlie, Matt, Steve and I sat together outside among the audience of God's great beauty, and we reflected on the stories of where we have come from. It has been painful, exhilarating, disappointing, beautiful - all of it. We sat there, circled together, with the blue ridge mountains as our witness, and affirmed that we are blessed to be a part of such a story. And then we took the great leap to dream about where we are going next, and we cannot wait for the stories that will come as a result of this new chapter of ours.

But we could not have done that until we had remembered where we came from.

Our stories can teach us, time and time again.

What stories ought you to remember?

May you be as blessed as we were in the important and sacred act of remembering.