From my solitary perch atop the parking garage, I stared out across the treetops at the distant Charlotte skyline. The sunset further to the west reflected brilliantly off the skyscrapers, signaling the start of the city’s bustling nightlife. It was a beautiful scene; the leaves rustling in the faint breeze, the clouds dipped in a fabulous orange. My heart was joyful as I contemplated creation around me.
And then an unfamiliar thought crossed my mind, and my heart twisted unexpectedly. I wonder how many women are being trafficked tonight…
Bowing my head, I prayed, working through the sudden coldness that swept through me on that warm summer evening.
Behind those blazing windows, beneath the picturesque skyline, down in those hotels and streets and alleys – how many women were spending one more night in bondage? How many people were being prepared for – or had already begun – another night of being brutally used, over and over again? While I sat here watching the sunset in freedom, who dreaded it as the signal of impending humiliation and degradation?
I thought about a lot of different things that night, but almost all of them centered on the women I knew were in hotel rooms, alleys, and street corners. Of them, the following three ideas have served to remind me of what is truly valuable, and worthy, in this life.
1. To whom much is given, much is required.
Jesus said, “To whom much is given, much will be required, and from the one who who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Many of us at Duke are given talents, knowledge, time, and opportunities to develop ourselves. I’m blessed to know many Dukies who want to use those gifts to invest and change the lives of others, but I also find myself (and even dear friends) dreaming of how I can best use those gifts to serve my own future rather than give the extra I have to another. Whomever we are, we can almost always say this: I was given more than someone else. How can we seek to bless those with less?
Where would we be if those who had more didn’t come alongside those who had less? Where would hospitals, Goodwill, and the Salvation Army be? I include myself in the challenge I pose my classmates: You have something to offer. Whatever that is – entrepreneurship, advocacy, administration, engineering, banking, music – who will benefit from it? Who will you offer it to? It would be a waste and shame to keep gifts with such potential to ourselves.
These women in trafficking – and millions of other humans across the world – need what humble strengths we can offer. Or perhaps I should say, what we have been given to offer. Man was not made to be alone; but we were made to help each other along this journey called life. Our diverse talents only multiply the ways we can serve others.
2. Part of our lives is giving life to others.
Following that first idea, part of life is coming alongside others in their pain, loss, and suffering. Those who are strong, for whatever reasons – perhaps backgrounds, upbringings, faith – have a responsibility to help shoulder the burdens of those who, for a time, are weak. I don’t think this is condescending; how many of us were grateful for the friend that called to listen and hold us when we were weakest? But that took intentionality and giving on our friend’s part. In meditating on this, I realize how often I close my eyes to ways I can love the people around me so I don’t have to feel the effort and (sometimes, to my chagrin, pain) of giving, of seeing something I want disappear for the sake of someone else.
When our lives are lived selfishly – solely for satisfying our desires, dreams, pleasures – we always chase the next dangling promise of happiness or satisfaction. At the end, when we look around, maybe we’ll have that degree, that career, that title, that house, or those cars. We are told that if we work hard now, it’ll pay off later when we have money or live in that city. But we lose so much when all we gain is for ourselves.
When we spend our time loving others, if that means sitting beside them in ashes as they mourn or helping carry their bags across Europe, we’re participating in one of our greatest purposes, and subsequently find a joy and meaning that is unparalleled: loving our neighbors as ourselves. Whether I am led to serve these precious survivors of trafficking, or prisoners at my local jail, or that old lady living by herself down the street, I am realizing that a crucial part of life is giving it.
3. Serving others means inconvenience, and giving up what we want.
Finally, I’m learning that serving others and loving others will mean sacrifice, inconvenience, and sometimes a mess. As much as I can long for it to be, it’s rarely glamorous and far more often forgotten than remembered. It takes time, investment, and willingness to stay when things aren’t changing (maybe one of the greatest challenges we’ll ever face). If I want to truly make a lasting, personal difference in the lives of people who are hurt or in pain, I am going to have to give up something of what I want for my life. It might mean not going to grad school. It might mean moving to another country and picking up a new language. It might mean caring for an aging parent when it would be so much easier to find them a nursing home. Or it might mean cooking soup and baking cornbread for the food pantry on Friday nights over going out with friends or watching Netflix. But my faith tells me that what I do in love for others, is never wasted. And so even in the “dying” of my plans for my life, there is great hope and joy.
I’ve come to appreciate the words on the back of my DukeEngage t-shirt far more deeply than before. Working with A21 in Charlotte has changed my world in many, and I hope, long-lasting, ways, and I am grateful that it’s put a megaphone to the once-dim cry of a hurting world. May our ears never grow deaf to that cry.