The mass media's foreign reports often reduce real people and real situations to stereotypes and pithy summations designed to tug heartstrings. Each report contains a kernel of truth, but it filters though in a condensed or warped form. Journalists Andrew Nicodem and Ryan Gilles hope to counteract this distortion by putting names and faces to people experiencing God's redemption as they struggle for justice, dignity and life around the world. Their 15-month trip will take them to 10 different cities.
Nicodem and Gilles didn't meet in person until just a few months before they boarded flights for Greece, but they got the idea for their trip years earlier, when both men spent time overseas. Ryan, in Zambia, and Andrew, in Israel, met people working for the church and knew they had stories to tell.
"We both came away with the strong feeling that these were the kinds of stories that need to be told, the kinds of stories that encourage, inspire, and bring about action," Gilles said.
But another year passed before either made a move to do something about it. Nicodem worked as a middle school English and history teacher at a classical Christian school, in Naperville, Ill.. Gilles finished his political journalism degree at Patrick Henry College, in Purcellville, Va., while writing for a Washington-based foreign policy analysis website.
Nicodem began planning the Naming the World project after discussing it with Scott Olson, the president of the Chicago-based evangelical organization International Teams (ITeams). Olson immediately connected with Nicodem's vision. When Gilles heard about the project through a friend, he knew he wanted to join the work.
The project's goal is two-fold. The men must first tangibly serve the ministry team they partner with at each stop. Secondly, they will document stories of God at work in the ministry, with the goal of encouraging, inspiring, and challenging others. Readers can follow their progress through their blog, namingtheworld.org.
Nicodem and Gilles, who left the U.S. in early May, spent a month at the Athens Refugee Center, in Greece, where they profiled refugees living in poverty and spent four hours in prison after being arrested for not having their passports with them. Now, they're in France, staying at the Champfleuri sanctuary, a youth and church camp facility near the Swiss border.
Gilles, speaking for both men, took a break from interviewing to answer a few questions for World on Campus.
Why did you choose "Naming the World" as the title of your project?
The title "Naming the World" comes out of our heart's desire for this project: to encourage, challenge, and inspire others by sharing the names, the faces, and the stories where God is at work around the world. Some might read it as a pretentious statement, that we think we have the audacity to name the world. But in fact, it's exactly the opposite! Our goal is to highlight those who go unheard; those who have a beautiful, name, face, and story because of their loving Creator. We are simply striving to give those names, faces, and stories their "beautiful due," to quote one of Andrew's favorite authors, John Updike.
How were you able to able to serve while in Athens? What plans do you have for the upcoming month?
I think the way we serve in each different location will vary a lot. And honestly I find that exciting. In Athens, we were able to dive in with the team in very practical, tangible ways: helping prepare meals for refugees, cleaning, playing with the kids while the adults listened to a Bible lesson, etc. Here in Grenoble, it is a far more relationship-based ministry, meaning we've done a mix of serving physically and more relationally. The latter often comes down to simply spending time with people and striving to invest in them, whether they are students, local pastors and missionaries, or gypsies from one of the nearby camps.
Our plan right now is to travel to Romania from mid-July through mid-August, working with International Teams workers in a ministry to the many poor and the refugees in the country. In September we will be in Spain, spending some time traveling El Camino Santiago in the northern part of the country. It is known as a very spiritual journey for many sojourners and our goal will be to build relationships with and minister to those we meet on the trail. Once we arrive in Santiago, we plan to spend some time working with a new ITeams ministry there to the many travelers that flood the city.
What's a typical day on your mission? What's the biggest change you've had to adapt to?
I'm not sure there is any such thing as a "typical day" on this project. But the one thing that will be the same in each place we visit is the need to guard certain days for writing and photo editing: basically the behind-the-scenes work. I think we have felt the tension already between wanting to put our hands to work and tangibly serve, but also knowing that we need time to pull away and actually put down all that we've seen into words and pictures. That takes time and I think it will be hard all throughout this project to decide how much time to devote to each part.
How does your work fit into the larger mission of the church?
We really believe that stories have power. And we believe that the most powerful stories of all are those that tell of God's redemptive work in people's lives. While studying journalism in college, I so often got tired of reading stories only full of pain, suffering, injustice. Stories completely devoid of God. I guess I began to ask myself why more people weren't telling the stories of redemption and hope through Christ. I think we as the Church sometime forget what an incredible God we serve because we don't realize how He is constantly at work in every corner of the world. I think it's vital that the Church not miss the beautiful work of our Savior all around us.
Our hope is that believers in the Church are encouraged and inspired in their faith as they read these stories. We also hope they are challenged on two fronts: first to get on their knees and pray, and second to ask the Lord how He wants to put them to work for His Kingdom.
How are you working to increase readers and viewers for your work?
We believe that these are the kinds of stories worth telling, and thus we hope that as many people as possible have the chance to read them! We're using Facebook to let people know when new posts go up and we encourage people to share anything they want with friends. International Teams is also using portions of our work on their website for ministry updates.
Is there one particular place you plan to travel in the next 15 months that you think is more important or most important for people to be aware of?
I don't think its possible to say one place or one issue is more important than another. Actually I think that is one of the notions we are trying to work against. When people think of need and oppression, they probably think of orphans in Africa or human trafficking. Those are certainly examples of very real oppression, but I believe that oppression exists just as much in affluent neighborhoods of southern France, for example. It is simply a different kind of oppression, a different kind of darkness and I think we get in trouble when we start saying that combating physical oppression ought to be our main concern. We've seen a very real spiritual darkness here in France and we want people to be praying for the deep spiritual needs in the first world as much as they pray for the physical needs of so many in the third-world and beyond.
But I do think one of the most pervasive issues we will see time and again in the different ITeams ministries we serve with will be homelessness. First, in the literal sense of someone needing a roof over their head. But perhaps even more, in the sense of the refugee: those who have no land to call their own. Even in just the first two months of this project, my eyes have been opened to what an enormous issue this is across the globe and how many people desperately need a place to call home.
Do you have any idea what you might do once this trip is over?
That is a great question that Andrew and I would love to know the answer to ourselves! I know this project will have a huge impact in our lives and for now, I think we are both just praying that the Lord will use it to guide our hearts and prepare us for the work he has set out for us in the years after this is all over.
Any insights on the difference between cleaning bathrooms in the States and cleaning them in Athens?
Haha. The concepts of toilet bowl cleaner and a toilet brush don't seem to translate in Greece. At least in some places. If you ever find yourself in Athens with some bleach, a bucket, and a squatty-potty, you have my deepest empathy.