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When this year’s Global Hunger Fast fell on the third week of my son’s life, I reluctantly agreed with my husband and family to sit out this time around. But as I think about my Filipina sisters at Samaritana (and women in developing countries worldwide), I’m acutely aware of how privileged I am for this to be a choice. While I don’t believe in punishing my son for the sake of making a point, I don’t take this contrast lightly.

Early in our time in Manila, I read that Filipinos are among the shortest people in the world, largely because of malnutrition. While I’m eating my affluent diet loaded with produce and protein, new mothers around the world are eating whatever they can get–which is to say, not what they need for themselves, let alone a baby. While I have the luxury of breastfeeding and pumping out plenty of milk to be frozen for future months, the mothers I knew at Samaritana had to make do with what their bodies would produce (or whatever they could afford), and they certainly didn’t have breast pumps or even refrigerators (or freezers) to store food or milk.

As every new mother knows, these first weeks are a haze of chaos and fatigue. But when I think about my first seventeen days of motherhood compared to those of the Samaritana women, my version of motherhood looks a piece of cake.

Even before Gabriel was born, my experience of labor and delivery was, by the world’s standards, pretty cushy: Nate and our doulas rubbed my back; I snacked when hungry, took a hot shower and hot bath to relax, all the while listening to the soothing sounds of Miles Davis. After contractions picked up, we drove ten minutes in our own car to the hospital, where for the next five hours, a flock of medical staff monitored Gabriel’s heartbeat and kept Nate and me informed. When his heartbeat kept dropping, yet I wasn’t dilating despite ever-stronger contractions (Gabe had his head turned sideways), the possibility of a C section first came up.

Ninety minutes later I was in the operating room; a half hour after that I heard Nate say “it’s a boy,” and then Gabriel Sagada Davis was in my arms and my husband was sobbing tears of joy beside me. While it didn’t happen quite as planned, and there were many painful hours, the whole experience was remarkably calm–pleasant, even. I had only a flicker of a thought that my baby and I might be in danger, and then it was gone with a simple prayer and the knowledge that I was about to go through a procedure that, while major, was also somewhat routine. The first four days of Gabe’s life were spent in the hospital, and Nate and I were continually impressed by how excellent the doctors and nurses were, how our every need was met, and what a gift it was to be in a setting with so many people who clearly love what they do.

I recap the birth because while I never set foot in a Manila hospital, I heard enough about them to make me glad I had no reason to. One Filipino friend told me that people avoid going to the hospital because once you’re there, you’re much more likely to die. And while good medical care is available in Manila (for the rich), as a new mom I also can’t ignore the world infant mortality rankings, which suggest that Gabriel would’ve been three times as likely to die had he been born a Filipino baby–or twenty times more likely as an Afghani.

It’s easy to walk away from these sobering contrasts feeling guilty for having so much, but I think I’m missing the point of the Global Hunger Fast if guilt is all I feel. I can’t change the world’s infant mortality rates or improve nutrition by feeling bad. But my awareness of the disparities between my life and the lives of women around the world can make me softer and more compassionate. It can open my wallet a little wider. It can keep me praying and looking for ways to love and serve, one woman at a time.

-Laura

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Princess, daughter of one of the women at Samaritana, and one of about 3 billion people in the world living on less than $2.50/day

Almost exactly a year ago, living in Manila, we joined our church back in Oakland for the Global Hunger Fast. For Holy Week (Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday), we challenged ourselves to live in solidarity with half the world’s population–and specifically our Filipina sisters at Samaritana–and live on ~$2 per day.  The result was one of the more profound experiences we’ve had in recent years, and the lessons we’ve learned have stuck with us even months after returning to the States.

Holy Week is upon us once again, and we are thrilled that our church has once again taken on the challenge of the Global Hunger Fast, this time with the goal of donating the money saved to Samaritana. Once again, we’ll be chronicling our experience, this time from the perspective of new parents in the United States.

We want to invite you to join us this next week, and to consider donating the money you’ll save to Samaritana. If living on $2.50 per day seems impossible, there are other meaningful, yet manageable ways you can join this fast. Give up your gourmet coffee for a week, or cut out eating out/take-out, or pick a daily dinner that a typical Filipino would eat. You can read more about the Global Hunger Fast (and get more ideas on how to participate) here. You can check out last year’s Global Hunger Fast here.

Please let us know if you’re joining with us and post comments so others can be encouraged. We hope that once again this experience will not only challenge and change us, but be a huge blessing to Samaritana and the women they serve.

–Laura

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To make a tax-deductible donation to Samaritana, please write a check to Mission East Asia National Support (MEANS), and designate Samaritana in the memo. Then mail to: P.O. Box 8434, Bartlett, IL 60103.

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From Laura: I promised that I would post something as soon as we had news about my literary, or literal baby. For those of you not on Facebook, forgive us for taking a few days to announce that the baby is finally here! Gabriel Sagada Davis was born on Saturday, March 17 at 8:07 a.m.
After a hard night of labor, we learned that our child was every bit as stubborn as his parents: he was trying to come out sideways, and as a result his heart rate was dropping to dangerously low levels. While a C-section wasn’t what we’d planned, we are intensely grateful for modern medicine; if this had happened 100 years ago, Gabe and I probably both wouldn’t be here now. He came out perfect (except for an oblong head and bruised face, which have since healed) and healthy, and even on the tired nights, we’re delighted to realize how much fun we’re having with him in our world.

“Gabriel” means “mighty man of God,” a blessing we have had for this little boy for many months. Sagada is the name of a gorgeous mountain town in the Filipino rice terraces, and one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been. We want this child to grow up understanding that he was not just made in the Philippines, but that our year there readied us for parenthood. We hope he will love that country as much as we do, and look forward to taking him back there someday.

As for the literary baby, after getting some feedback from agents and other readers, I revised, revised again, and revised again to complete draft #7–what I hope will be a final draft (at least for now)–just days before Gabriel was born. Three literary agents have asked for it in the past three weeks, so now I get to pray and wait.

From Nate: when we were in the Philippines, the story we often heard was that women turned to prostitution because they had no other options, and would do anything to support their child. Now that I have one of my own, I can understand their actions as I never could before. 

Notes from a Hundred-hour Dad
It’s been four days since the rest of my life began, 100 hours that will forever stand out from the previous 300,000 I’ve lived. In the huge realm of fatherhood, I’ve earned just a spit-up of knowledge—but here it is:

To be a dad is to feel unworthy of the title. Unfitting of the shoes. Unsure of the task.

It’s fumbling and funneling formula to your child in the dark through a finger-taped tube.
Coming to terms with non-word neo-cuteisms like “boppy” and “onesie.”
It’s posting the same pictures your pre-dad self found vapid.

To be a dad is to live life in the margins, have but a single hand to yourself, pause writing for burping. To be a dad is to hold the tuna sandwich in the right hand and the baby in the left.

It’s accepting that life is going to happen to your kid no matter how tight you hug him.
Putting oneself second—or third—despite one’s first inclinations.
It’s a blankie burrito that keeps coming unwrapped.

To be a dad is to feel soul-stretching affection and deity-doubting anguish in the span of an evening. To wonder what on this wretched planet will stop the crying that jars the joists of your being. To be a dad is to understand why babies get shaken.

It’s dreading that your child will be weighed in the hospital scales, and found wanting.
Worrying—or not—being separated by tenths of a degree.
It’s praying for pink skin, yellow pee, and green poop.

To be a dad is to have discussed all the topics, bought all the books, asked all the relatives, hit all the web sites, stockpiled all the stuff, downloaded all the apps, heard all the advice, joined all the groups—and still not know if you’re doing it right.

It’s being forced at bottlepoint to dig deep within—and not knowing what you’ll find.
Wandering an unfamiliar land wearing a backpack of neglected-family guilt.
It’s heritage and hope made squalling, squirming flesh.

To be a dad is to stand at the corner of universal and personal, to find your needle in the haystack of seven billion straws, to have numbers tattooed on your soul. It is to have six pounds, fourteen ounces be not an amount on a scale, but be love encapsulated, medicine’s gift, dark tiny eyes looking up.

It’s watching the unfolding of the mother in your wife—and holding onto the lover in her too. It’s remembering that sexy lasts longer than stretch marks.
Snapping from sleep at a single squeak, a single snuffle, a single ragged breath.
It’s wrenching your reluctant body clock into Baby Nonstandard Time.

To be a dad is to take love-at-first-cry economics. To grasp that cars, houses, jobs and kidneys are coins in the cushions compared to the miniature human in the bassinet. To think you’d do anything, and mean it.

It’s being half of something wonderful, sidestepping karma, seeing the divine wearing a diaper.
The shaking-hands panic of being trusted with something so valuable.
It’s sobbing a blessing over your son and hoping it will stick.

To be a dad is to strum a primal string, to stub one’s toe upon Rage boxed up in the basement, to think Woe to Him Who So Much as Pulls a Hair from My Child’s Fragile, Still-forming Head. To be a dad is to glimpse the killer within.

To be a dad and an employee is to wonder if they notice your ragged edges.
To be a dad and an artist is to face the inferiority of your every other creation.
To be a dad and a husband is to juggle two balls, and hope they’re rubber, not glass.

To be a dad is to be shoved into being the Here where the buck stops. Being Provider, Proclaimer, Protector. And ruing and regretting when you can’t, aren’t, or didn’t.

It’s knowing you’ll screw up perfection, and not knowing how bad.
Having your heart burst out your tear ducts.
It’s seeing that love is too meager a word.

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“Most of the time I don’t even pay them; all I need to do is show them my baby blues. Sometimes I just give them bus fare home.”

Bob was the stereotype, the guy we all love to hate: tubby, white-haired, sunburnt, and dressed like a beach-bound slob. The guy you hoped didn’t share your nationality. I’d seen him in fast food restaurants, night clubs, videoke bars, and even aboard airplanes headed to vacation destinations. Always beside him there was a beautiful Asian woman—sometimes two—young enough to be his granddaughter. He was the Sex Tourist.

Prior to leaving for the Philippines, I’d spent over a year reading books and articles on human trafficking, and almost all of them were filled with sad victim stories. I’m glad for every person who picks up Half the Sky, Not for Sale, or Disposable People, and I wish more people were reading them. But if we want to understand the complex, sophisticated human trafficking machine, we need to understand how it works–and what fuels it.

The Low-Flying Dove, the novel that came out of my year in Manila, is my attempt to do that. The narrative follows not just trafficking victims and those trying to help them, but a pimp, a bar owner, a former stripper, and two customers. I knew that writing this kind of book would mean interviewing customers, or Johns, and I dreaded talking to people I was sure I’d hate.

But at last I enlisted the help of an NGO worker who had formerly been a sex tourist himself; I told him my objective (to get a real picture of why these guys did what they did) and within a couple of hours, I had a half a dozen meetings set up with guys of all ages and backgrounds.

But let’s get back to Bob.

I’d secretly hoped that all of the guys I interviewed would be like him: easily villainized and blamed. But the truth was a lot closer to home. Yes, there were some despicable, unrelatable sex tourists, but more frequently the men I talked to were surprisingly . . . normal. Likeable, even.

One middle-aged man from Boston sat with me for almost two hours and told me how heartbroken he was when his wife of forty years left him. He came to the Philippines looking for a wife and a second chance, and found her in the form of a 23-year-old bar girl. He met her by paying her for sex, but was indignant that men like Bob abused the girls. He thought sex trafficking was terrible.

I talked to several twenty- and thirty-something guys who had come to Asia to travel and see the world–not sex. They wouldn’t pay for it back home, so why would they in another country? But then they arrived in Manila/Hong Kong/Bangkok/Singapore/etc. and met another foreigner who took them out to a red light district, had a few drinks, and ended up at a strip club. Or they got a great deal on a massage, where their young, pretty massage therapist abruptly offered them extras.

“Normal becomes a pretty relative term after a while,” one guy told me. He’d been stunned the first few times he’d found himself in some of the situations above. But after a while, the things that had shocked him suddenly began to feel commonplace. “Guys do things here that they would never do at home,” he said. “Back home they might look at porn, but they would never go looking for a prostitute.”

Some of the men I met were traveling for work; they had wives and children whom they loved and missed. Many of them knew about sex trafficking and thought that it was atrocious. Not a single man I talked to believed that he was contributing to it in any way. Many times the girls who had convinced my interviewees that they were having a great time confided in me that they had been trafficked and were deeply ashamed of the life they were living.

It’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow, but thanks to our friend Anna Broadway, Valentine’s Day isn’t just for couples this year. Anna understands that sex trafficking and prostitution will continue to exploit growing numbers of women unless we turn our attention to the demand for sex—to the customers, or Johns.

All across the country, churches, groups, and individuals are joining Anna in praying for the Johns. We are too. You can read more about Pray for the Johns Day here, and also read an article where Anna interviewed me.

Would you join us in praying for the Johns tomorrow? You can find specific ways to pray on the PFTJ website. We’d love to hear about your experiences here, so please comment and let us know that you’re joining us!

-Laura

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Growing up, I never thought I was that fortunate. I was short, skinny, and had glasses: shrimp, four-eyes, not exactly precocious with the ladies. That was me. And since my mom sacrificed her life to home-school me and my siblings, we had one income for a family of seven, so I couldn’t always sport Z. Cavaricci and Hypercolor like the cool kids.

I saw more of what I didn’t have than what I did. I read National Geographic, but for a kid, is the exotic much different than the make-believe? Even living abroad, I picked up on details–why can’t they get good orange juice in the UK? Why are the Palestinians always angry?–but missed the part about how traveling is a privilege.

Then Laura and I moved to Manila. As we noted on several occasions on our blog, it was the biggest, sweatiest, loudest, dirtiest, most crowded place we’ve ever been. But as hard as life is there in a city of twenty million, it’s often even harder elsewhere. So people keep coming.

We had gone there to volunteer for a year, to donate our valuable time and skills: Laura coaching and writing her novel on trafficking and prostitution, and me with communications. Yet amidst the dripping-wet waistbands, the pre-dawn roosters, and the smoggy hours on buses, life got stripped down to the essentials. We got to know a wonderful country. We received more than we gave. And at Samaritana, we not only found beauty, but also saw God.

After some reflection, “quiet miracles” is the phrase I’ve arrived at to describe what goes on there. How else to explain the reclamation of society’s refuse, of women considered worthless, of human beings robbed of humanity? It’s a slow process, of course, often painful, frustrating, and heart-wrenching for the marvelous staff and volunteers. There are tears, harsh words, sullen looks, and defiant walks out the door. But they come back, and when they do, with counseling, prayer, hugs, singing, cleaning, cooking, and crafts, the lacerated lives get stitched up, day by day.

Artists say that the plain human form is the most beautiful subject; in the same way, there are few more beautiful events to witness than a simple smile emerging at last from a person whom life has taught to despair. This was the beauty we saw at Samaritana–and was a new side of the God I’d read about in a book all my life, yet just came to understand this year.

Now we’re back. We returned to zero jobs and one big mortgage, yet the freelance work for me has come in, Laura’s gotten to stay home and write, we’re healthy, and little Kierkegaard Umlaut Davis is supposed to arrive in March. Plus we have hot showers, our own car, potable tap water, and now two lives’ worth of friends. A year ago we thought we were giving up so much, and yet we’ve been given it all back, and more.

After 35 years, it’s finally seeping into my dome how fortunate I am. If you’re thinking “Wow, finding beauty and seeing God? Sign me up for a sabbatical year,” then nothing could make us happier. (Note: we saved for four years leading up to this; it’s all gone.) But for a year like this? Such a deal.

-Nate

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After you've eaten mangoes in the Philippines, it's hard to eat them anywhere else

Since we got back, our time has been divided between me looking for work, Laura revising her novel, us trying to find health care, getting used to the idea of having a baby in March–and trying to figure out something even more important: what do we want our life to look like now?

As we’ve remarked to people who have asked us about the transition back over the last four months, one of the hardest things, we’ve found, is resisting the temptation to simply be re-inserted back into the matrix. After all, our home, car, food, family, and friends are all here for us, tempting us to pick up the Bay Area good life again and let the life-altering experiences of the past year fade into the background. Like skills you don’t use, it’s alarming how quickly memories fade.

What we’ve concluded is that just as we’re committed to exercise to stay physically healthy, we have to be committed to working for Samaritana, for other trafficking and prostitution victims, and for these issues at large if we’re to remain spiritually healthy. One way we’re doing this is sharing our story every chance we get, so we were grateful for Converge Worldwide (our missions organization) giving us the chance to do two guest posts on their blog.

If you were busy from July 2010-July 2011, but are a little curious about what it’s like to quit your lives for a year and go overseas, this is the perfect time to catch up: Laura encapsulates our process leading up to the sabbatical year, and what we did, in just two posts. Please click over to read here.

And as always, thanks to all of you who helped us get there.

The Low-Flying Dove

Posted: October 13, 2011 in Our work
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One of the first things we learned when we arrived in Manila was that there is no word for “prostitute” in Tagalog. If Filipinos talk about the girls or women working on the streets and in bars, they use the English word or the Filipino euphemism kalapating mababa ang lipad, low-flying dove. One of the staff at Samaritana told us that this was a clue to understanding just how shameful prostitution is in Filipino culture. As I came to know and love dozens of these women, the idea stuck with me–not just the shame, but the image of a beautiful bird who flies low and can’t recover. The phrase haunted me all year; now it’s the title of my novel.

Many of you have asked for updates on the book, which I really appreciate! I finished it a couple of weeks ago, a feat made possible by my husband, who has been working hard to make sure that I can write full-time, a dream we’ve shared for more than a decade. It’s been a season of uncertainty, but also of wonder; God willing, a new little Davis will show up sometime in March.

As of a week ago, my novel is in the hands of a couple of agents. While the publishing process can take months (or even years), I wanted to give you a little taste of the book in the meantime. The moment I have any updates on the publishing process, you will find out about it here.

The following is a short excerpt from the middle of the book. While many scenes are more light-hearted and capture all that I came to cherish about the Philippines, other parts touch on the difficult realities of sex trafficking and prostitution. This particular scene is an introduction to Lovely, a low-flying dove.

-Laura

Excerpt from The Low-Flying Dove:

The dogs woke Lovely on the morning of her wedding. Usually she could shake off the pre-dawn cacophony, or even let the insomniac roosters and yelping animals tumble into half-dreams. This morning all she could think about was him, a vision too chilling to let her linger in morning slumber.

She crept past her sisters, who slept the contented sleep of innocence, snoring softly. As she passed the mattress by the far wall, she could hear her father’s whistling breath, and was immediately hit with the smells of sweat and Ginebra gin. She no longer heard him when he came in at night, many hours after the rest of them had fallen asleep. Lovely’s mother slept facing the wall, her back to her husband.

Outside the air was thick, and the sky hung heavily with pregnant clouds. The gray light of early morning didn’t have its usual cool, and Lovely took this to be a sign, a bad omen of her own terrible future.

She walked, ignoring the nagging conscience that had always been with her as the Ate to her younger siblings. She shouldn’t be out walking on the morning of her wedding. She should be home washing herself, wrapping her hair into little knots that would later become curls, dressing in the dress her mother had borrowed money to have made. She shook off this old wisdom; it hadn’t served her well. Someone else could be the Ate from now on.

She came to the place she’d been looking for without realizing that she was headed there all along. It was a sandy spot along the coast, less of a beach and more of a shoreline with only wispy memories of white sand. On the east side of the island, the waves were powerful and constant, a message from the endless ocean that ended in lands so distant and different that it was easier not to believe they were real. But on this side of the island, the water was still, and the world felt manageable, small. It was a place she hadn’t come to for many months, since before she’d left the province to work for Ma’am Yolly—before she met Jejomar. There was a perfectly smooth rock facing the water that was just the right size for a small person to sit.

Ate?” A squeaky, insistent voice stirred the morning haze just as Lovely was about to sit down. “Ah-tay!”

“Quiet,” she scolded, knowing without turning that it was Boy. “It’s still early.”

“Help me,” he said as he shoved a dirty fistful of white flowers at her.

“Not today, Boy,” she said, shaking off the feeling that had settled in before the small boy had spotted her.

Isa lang,” he cried. “Just one, Ate?”

She let him settle into her lap and dutifully tied the flower stems together in knots until she had made one wilting necklace, and then another. The flimsy blossoms might sell enough for Boy to buy some peanuts, but she didn’t have the heart to tell him that with her distorted harelip, his sister would always sell more. It wasn’t enough to simply be cute. They were street children, practically orphans since they had no father and their mother would do no more than sit on city curbs begging for spare change, sniffing rugby.

When at last Lovely had tied up the last of his flowers, Boy took the bundle and scurried off, forgetting to say thank you, and oblivious to Lovely’s weary expression.

She didn’t cry today as she had for so many days before. There was no use in replaying the scene, wondering if she could’ve somehow escaped from his grasp, chased away everything that would follow. Perhaps it hadn’t been her fault, her mother had said, smoothing Lovely’s hair as she cried, her inner thighs still burning even though she had washed herself until the blood and cloudy white fluid was gone. He really shouldn’t have been at the house while Ma’am Yolly was out. But Lovely was so pretty, and it was easy enough to understand why he’d wanted her. Now that he’d had her, they would marry. Perhaps it wasn’t the union they had hoped for, but there were worse men in the world, and Ma’am Yolly would find them work.

Her mother had said these things without looking directly at her, her soothing hand a betrayal. Lovely knew that the man she was marrying was not a good man, and her mother knew it, too. She must’ve known that Lovely had done nothing to suggest to him that she wanted the bruises on her wrists from where he held her down, or the lump on the back of her head from where he slammed her against the floor until she held still and let him do what he’d come for.

“Mama,” she’d said, facing away from her mother, but she couldn’t bear to ask the question she’d wanted to for months, to know if her mother had knowingly sent her to Ma’am Yolly’s, knowing what she’d be expected to do there. Lovely’s mother, as if she had known that the question was not one to be discussed, did not respond.