I'm Going to Tanzania to Talk About Sex. And Poop.
Even a Luddite can master click bait. But seriously, my application essay for GETI was about sex and poop. Or rather, the stigmatization of these issues. Here it is:
What do sex and defecation have in common? They are normal human behaviors, equally necessary for human survival. Each is responsible for transmitting disease in every country around the world. Despite their universal importance and threat to human life, both are often too stigmatized and shameful for frank, honest discussion in the global Church. For millions, this silence means death.
I spent over three years living and working with indigenous groups in Panama focused on the HIV/AIDS and WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) crises. We built latrines together, repaired water systems, practiced community conflict resolution, and discussed safe sex practices. I saw what it looks like when community-based interventions succeed and I wrestled with the dozens of reasons why they do not. It became clear that overcoming shame, and the stigmatization of individuals/behaviors that it creates, was the most important step for community development and empowerment. It is critical for sustainable transformation, but cannot be resolved through financial or infrastructural means. It is a social wound, and thus requires a social balm.
In Korean theology, this concept is referred to as han, an emotional and spiritual injury received from personal and systemic abuse. Guiding communities through their healing of han is my calling. I started the nonprofit Acting Out Awareness (AOA) because bringing people together to talk about secret, silenced issues in funny, relational, and artistic ways did more than educate, it changed hearts and minds.
I started AOA because when I looked in the eyes of my community members struggling to overcome systemic poverty and marginalization, I saw han. I started it because when I started teaching community organizers to confront han, they told me it was a story that changed their life. There are many mission and development organizations seeking to mitigate the material effects of han, but AOA is intentionally not that. Our primary goal has always been to tackle it head on.
In the first hour of any event, we open with a conversation about han, or what we call, “shame monsters”. We normalize having them, dealing with them, and helping each other with them. We confess all the gut-wrenching lies our shame monsters tell us and lock them up for the duration of the event. We create, for perhaps the first time in some participants’ lives, a safe space from han, where a message of affirmation, community, and connection can begin to take root. We plant seeds of support with the hope a bucket full of validation leaves no room for lies. We tell stories, play, and share meals together.
As I was leading a youth camp, on the second to last day, a facilitator brought me an upset eleven-year-old girl. He thought she was homesick. On the contrary- she had just realized camp was a transient thing; her return to ‘real life’ was bearing down upon her. I asked her what her shame monster was saying in that moment. She said, “That I should die. That everyone would be better off if I was no longer alive. I am so tired of feeling sad, ashamed, and afraid. I just want it to stop. Quiero morirme.”
It is no exaggeration to say that storytelling saves lives. It is the stories we tell that give us life, that carry the power to heal. Thehan alone. We cannot resolve han on our own. It requires relationship. It requires being seen and heard. That is why AOA does what it does. That is why we teach theatre, play games, and practice leadership. We fight shame monsters, and the stigma that shame monsters leave behind. We are in this to tackle han, within ourselves and in our world.re is no greater honor than being trusted with someone else’s story. No human can embrace the fullness of who they are while bearing the weight of
Theatre is inherently holy work. ἀκολουθέω is the Greek verb used ninety times in the New Testament to specifically describe people following Jesus and Jesus calling individuals to follow him. In the online biblical Greek dictionary, Bill Mounce defines the verb in two ways: to study a leader’s teaching and to imitate1.
To define imitation I look to the theatre, where actors build their careers on their ability to imitate. Most of acting school is dedicated to teaching actors how to be with themselves: getting to know how one’s own body feels, moves, reacts, and sounds. This is important because in the art of imitation, you cannot deny the self. In acting out the life of another, I must do it from within my own body and experience.
Therefore, imitation is not a superficial affectation of the body but rather a transformative integration, connecting my innermost being to the life and experience of another. To imitate Jesus is not to simply quote his words and replicate his actions. Helpless, passive actors are ones who speak the lines, go where the director wants, and bore the audience to death in the process. If the actor does not connect with the character they are portraying, they prevent the audience from being able to do so as well. A true imitation means seeking to find the character and perspective of Jesus from within my own body and experience. If the church does not connect with the Jesus they are preaching, they prevent the world from being able to do so.
I want to attend this conference because I believe addressing stigma and shame should be part of every mission in the global Church, not just my little startup. I want to learn from my colleagues the ways their local congregations promote social healing in different contexts. I see this as an opportunity for us brainstorm ways in which we can challenge translations and practices that fuel shame and stigmatization of ‘the other’. I hope to share my passion and talent for storytelling. I aspire to be part of a Church that courageously discusses sex and defecation from its pulpits.
|Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference |
between a church and a theatre!