Certain people decide to make other people's pain their own. Gary Haugen, founder and CEO of International Justice Mission, is one of those people. In this episode, Kate and Gary talk about how even in the darkest places, joy and goodness can be found.
CW: genocide, sexual assault and violence
Discussion questions for this conversation are available here.
Last year, 2019, marked twenty-five years since the Rwandan Genocide. If you don’t know very much about what occurred, I encourage you to study more about the event. Please know, however, that the pictures and stories can be very heavy. This article is a good place to start.
Read an interesting article about the locusts that swarmed the Ingalls’ family farm on Little House on the Prairie here. Or, if you prefer the show, watch season 1, episode 3 for the episode inspired by the event (note, in the show hail destroys the crops rather than locusts).
Watch a video about IJM, here.
Read Gary’s latest book The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence. Also find his other books, Just Courage: God’s Great Expedition for the Restless Christian and Good News About Injustice: A Witness of Courage in a Hurting World.
You can find Gary on Twitter. You can also follow IJM on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Last thing, snuggle zone is the best. Here’s a picture to prove it.
Kate Bowler: Hi, I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. Look, the world loves us when we are good, better, best. But this is a podcast for when you want to stop feeling guilty that you’re not living your best life now. We’re not always celebrating our Zen like mindset. I used to have my own delusion of living my best life now. I’m a Duke professor, wine and cheese enthusiast, wife and mom. Instagram gold. Then I was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. That was four years ago and I’m still here. And now I get it. Life is a chronic condition. The self-help and wellness industry will try to tell you that you can always fix your life. Eat this and you won’t get sick, lose this weight and you’ll never be lonely. Believe with your whole heart and God will provide. Keep this attitude and the money is yours. But I’m here to look into your gorgeous eyes and say, hey, there are some things you can fix and some things you can’t. And it’s OK that life isn’t always better. We can find beauty and meaning and truth, but there’s no cure to being human. So let’s be friends on that journey. Let’s be human together.
K. B.: Today’s episode is for those of us who feel compelled to take on the world’s problems. There is a certain type of person who decides they want to be brave. That can’t just be everybody, I get. Because you might feel overwhelmed or you’re sandwiched between caring for an aging parent and a growing child. Or maybe you’re stretched too thin with worries of your own that keep you up at night. But there are certain people who decide to make other people’s pain, their own, who see inequality and injustice and suffering, and they move toward it. We love to feature stories like this. And here’s one from my new friend Gary. Gary Haugen grew up in Sacramento, went to Harvard and attended the University of Chicago Law School, where he became a human rights lawyer, a.k.a. a super hero for justice. He is the founder and CEO of the human rights agency International Justice Mission, where he works to eradicate human trafficking around the world. Gary, I’m so glad you’re here with me today.
Gary Haugen: Thanks for having me.
K. B.: Your first job was at the Department of Justice working in civil rights. And then in 1994, you were sent to Rwanda on an assignment.
K. B.: So for anyone who might not know what was happening when you arrived?
G.H.: Yeah. So this was just a few weeks after the end of the Rwandan genocide. About 800,000 people had been murdered in about eight weeks time. The U.N. collects people from various governments around the world and puts together a team. And so I was collected. My government, the U.S. Department of Justice donated me to the U.N. So I’m sent to Rwanda, take military transport from Nairobi into Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. And I’m loaded into a van. And I realize, oh we haven’t gone through customs or immigration because this isn’t a post-conflict situation. There is no customs and immigration at the airport because there really is no functioning government in the country. Then I’m given a list of a 100 different mass graves and massacre sites to go and collect the physical evidence and try to identify survivors and get their testimony as to what transpired. And out of that, to try to gather evidence that could be turned over to a international tribunal to try to bring the leaders of the genocide to justice. So honestly, it was setting up these mobile teams that would go from churches and stadiums and schools where hundreds of thousands of people had been murdered. And in some situations, all the bodies were all just laying in the cathedral, thousands of them, or would be a mass grave where there might be 15, 20 thousand people who’d been murdered. In those situations, you would just use a backhoe to unearth to estimate what the dimensions were of it. And then it the a harder part was actually interviewing survivors and especially kids who had maybe even lay amongst the dead for a period of time and then eventually make their way out. So we’re doing this horrific, unspeakably yet literally indescribably horrible task of sorting through the carnage of genocide.
K. B.: Quantifying suffering.
K. B.: With precision that most people just they they make their minds go blank at that moment.
G.H.: Yeah. You would walk through one of these situations. You just pick up the skull and identify whether it was a male or female and whether it was a machete or blunt trauma. It was one or the other and just have somebody ticking off the numbers behind you. So. Woman michette. Man michette. Child, blunt trauma. Because all the killing was done with machetes and farm implements.
K. B.: Yeah.
G.H.: Yeah. So terrible, horrible experience.
K. B.: We talk a lot about befores and afters in this little community and the things that change us forever that we can’t unknow. And it sounds like that was an especially galvanizing moment for you. What was reentry after that? What was that like for you after witnessing so much pain?
G.H.: Yeah. When I reentered back to the United States, first of all it was just the swiftness of which by jet aircraft, you move from genocide to a happy suburb in Washington, DC, where my wife and now happy kids are. And that’s just a really weird juxtaposition. But the thing that moved me so much, I think the longer arc of my own story was to see the very, very special problem of violence in the lives of the world’s poor. That Rwanda was a very poor country and it had been sort of recipients of tremendous amount of aid for food security and education and health and so on and so forth. And what I saw is the way when the men with the machetes show up, just none of that does any good.
K. B.: Yeah.
G.H.: And it began to especially create in my own thinking this thought of why isn’t there a more robust way for actually protecting the poor from violence? Because the world is responding to hunger and bad sanitation and lack of education. But how are we helping to protect the poor from violence and especially came from a faith tradition that was very engaged in caring for the poor in the developing world. But there was nobody focused on addressing the problem of violence. And I came back and started to feel like I want to see if what it looks like to dive into that.
K. B.: Mm hmm. Mm hmm. And you have a special name for that. I’m just looking at your book right now, which I loved.
K. B.: But you began to think of that in a particular way. Like, why is there no barrier between the poorest of the poor and then the incredible resourcing we might have to like bring food or water, et cetera. But then there’s such a thin partition between them and the everyday violence they experience.
G.H.: Yeah. So we call it the locust effect. It’s it comes really if you’ve read the Little House on the Prairie Stories.
K. B.: Person from Manitoba, did we have anything else? No, we had the House on the Prairie.
G.H.: Well, there’s the story. When the family has just been working so hard to get added debt and to get on their feet economically. And of course, they do that by year by year moving their farm along. And then just one day the locusts descend and they just devour and eat everything and destroy all of that hard work and effort. And this is what happens for the common poor, especially in the developing world, as they’re working super, super hard, trying to do all the right things to get to poverty and then violence strikes. And what does it look like? Well, it’s sexual violence against women and girls, right. So maybe they were saving money to eventually go to school, but then they actually get to go to school. But then they’re sexually assaulted on the way to school or at school. And so now they actually can’t go to school anymore or the family’s been saving money for their girls to start a little business. And then the police come by and steal that money from them or the family is abducted into a brick factory where they’re forced to work as slaves or the widow who’s trying to take care of her orphaned kids on this little patch of land. And people are giving her sort of better tools for working the land. But then the men with machetes show up and just throw her off the land and steal the land. So all of these were very, very vivid examples of something that just wasn’t being talked about very much was, yes, you have hunger and you have disease and you have lack of education. But all of your programs to try to address those are going to be completely undermined if you aren’t protecting the poor from violence. And the big sort of epiphany was this report that the U.N. came out with that came with this final conclusion that, quote, Most of the world’s poor live outside the protection of law, which means they are living in a place of total vulnerability to those who are violent and exploring that has been sort of the journey of my life for the last 20 years.
K. B.: Our life changing friendship has developed, I’d say, over the last hour and a half.
K. B.: And what’s so funny about you right away is you’re just like all agency. You’re like, OK, great. Now, what do we do now? So you came home and very quickly, you just decided something, something new was going to be made. What did you make?
G.H.: Yeah, well, with some friends put together this thing called International Justice Mission, and I quit my job on a Friday, the Department of Justice and I got myself elected to my little club, which I called International Justice Mission on a Saturday, and then got to go work for the organization that didn’t exist on Monday. And yeah, it was a startup, not for profit organization that said, hey, let’s try to do something about the problem of violence against the poor. But the vision and idea behind it was not actually something large. It was let’s do individual cases and we may not be able to solve any of these problems on a huge scale. But if that child has been abducted into a brothel where she’s being serially raped, I can probably not end all of sex trafficking in the world, but can we not get her out? Or that family that’s been sold into the rock quarry where they’re now working for 15 years, breaking rocks? Yep, we probably can’t end modern slavery in the world. Maybe I don’t see how we can. This is what I was thinking 25 years ago. But we can get that family out, can’t we? It was very much that idea of let’s begin by just doing for another individual what we would not want done for us in that situation, just pure golden rule kind of thing. And let’s just do one at a time. And so for 10 years, that’s what we did. Just one at a time. A few thousand individual cases around the world.
K. B.: And what was the first moment where you knew it might work? You’re like, I don’t just live in Virginia with my friends in a basement. I have international work I’ve been doing maybe from here.
G.H.: Yeah, well, the hardest thing to do at the beginning was to get anybody to actually refer a case to you.
K. B.: Yeah.
G.H.: And I think one of the first things I did was I went to the Philippines to go visit various shelters that take care of abandoned children, kids that live on the streets, because I knew they were vulnerable to terrible violence. So I went to this place called the Specs Foundation Home for Abandoned and Abused Girls and asked, hey, I’m International Justice Mission, and do you have any of these cases that I could maybe take on to see if we couldn’t help who’s being abused and make sure that whoever did it actually is brought to justice? Because our vision was, yes, you want to rescue people out of those bad situations, but you also want to make sure the bad guys actually go to jail for doing this or else they’ll just hurt other people and then provide a pathway of recovery and restoration for those who suffered that kind of abuse. But there was a case of this girl named Katherine, and I got to meet her and she had been horrifically raped by a young man in the neighborhood, but he was the son of a local police commander in the district. So even though there was a warrant of arrest issued because this, Katherine had been brave enough to go to a court to say, hey, I’ve been abused and the warrant of arrest had been issued. The local police would protect the man who abused. He would come by and taunt her about this. And so I said, well, can I take this case on? They were like OK, so I got a picture of the guy, made my own little wanted poster of this guy, and I got a copy of their arrest warrant, which is an order from a court that he’d be arrested. But I had to get a plane in like 30 minutes. So I like didn’t have time to actually do anything. So I had these little documents I get on a plane and I fly back to Washington, D.C., the global headquarters of International Justice Mission. So what you gonna do with this? Well, I decided I would just put these documents together with the nice IJM – International Justice Mission letterhead with like seal on it and everything that looks fancy from Washington, D.C. and send it to the general of the Philippine National Police with one of those letters that you write as a lawyer that says it’s come to the attention of the International Justice Mission that this woman Katherine’s …dut to dut to duh,…has been and there’s a warrant of arrest. What what can the International Justice Mission look forward to the Philippine government doing about this? Who knows what’s going to. You send that letter off. Who knows? Well, about a week later, I’m in my office early in the morning. It’s dark. I remember. And an intern who is working because of basically is me and interns in that day, free labor, comes walking in. She has a fax in her hand. I’ll explain that to younger people a little later what a fax is. But and her hands are literally shaking because it’s the front page of the Manila National newspaper. And above the fold headlines. International Letter Leads to Arrest of Rape Suspect. And there is the police commander getting a picture of himself actually formally booking the man who had committed this assault. That was one of the earliest cases of International Justice Mission, which at least manifest to me that, yeah, you may not be able to do everything. And this may not work every time. But if you focus on taking up the cause of a single individual and do the thing that you can do, maybe there is opportunity to actually do something that is worthwhile. And I have seen that kind of thing happen now more than 52,000 times, because 20 years later we’ve worked more than 52,000 individual cases like this. So, yes, there’s still a lot more to be done for sure, but I’ve seen more than enough of what’s possible. What’s good for me. I’m sold. Yeah.
K. B.: And so much of the staff you have just give us a sense of the scope, because.
K. B.: I think maybe 95 percent of the people who work with you.
K. B.: Are local.
G.H.: Right. So you can imagine having this American lawyer fly over to the Philippines and go back and forth. That’s not scalable or doesn’t have really interesting big effect. It’s important for Katherine. So, you know, good do that. But if you want this to have some larger impact. Well, what we ended up doing is actually growing indigenous national teams of lawyers and criminal investigators and social workers who would take on these cases in their own communities. So now these are Cambodians and Filipinos and Bolivians and Indians who are taking on these cases of slavery, sex trafficking, gender violence, police abuse and land theft. And they work the cases. They bring the bad guys to justice through their own justice system. So you have to establish a partnership with local government and then they take care of the long term care of those who have been traumatized by abuse. So now IJM has a thousand full time staff around the world in about 25 different countries, and they are focused on projects. Yes. Of individual casework, but now transforming their local justice system so you can measurably see the amount of violence falling. So we now have places where we’ve seen slavery and sex trafficking and child abuse measurably decreased by 75 percent, 79 percent, 81 percent. So this is the larger thing that has happened from the very first case of Katherine.
K. B.: Wow. Wow. It’s so fun and surreal to listen to you describe the scope of this, because maybe it’s just the nature of pain, but it always feels overwhelming.
K. B.: Like injustice always feels overwhelming and like vague in a way. Like, I read a lot of international news. I like to think of myself as open to the pain of the world. And yet there’s something that feels just like the scope of it. It feels like an avalanche sometimes.
G.H.: I think abstractions are paralyzing in some ways.
K. B.: Yeah.
G.H.: And there’s something about our imagination that is in some respects worse than reality.
K. B.: Yes. Yeah.
G.H.: And that’s why it’s very powerful, actually, they get right up to the human beings because it’s much more relatable.
K. B.: Yeah.
G.H.: It’s less phantasmagorical and it inspires a sense of, OK. This is not other worldly.
K. B.: Yeah.
G.H.: In the early days would try to take my kids with me overseas and into poor or difficult communities to just kind of demystify the whole thing, because as long as it’s far away and vague and abstract, it’s overwhelming. But it’s interesting dynamic actually, when you press up close to it in a very human way. It’s painful and it’s intense for sure. But you get the sense that, no, this is within the human realm. This is something we can engage. If that makes sense.
K. B.: So I think sometimes people are surprised, even if it’s like if it’s local or even if they imagined their profession in a different way. Like, I know a lot of people who are social workers or pastors or nurses or doctors. And sometimes the concreteness of work seemed like it made sense to them. But then the sea of misery I think it’s hard for them to know, us all to know like how to walk up, like, right close to it.
K. B.: And not be overwhelmed.
G.H.: There is just something super powerful, I think, for those of us who feel overwhelmed by of the bad, harsh suffering in the world to actually just pick one target, pick one place to focus one’s compassion and love and see what happens. I found that really fruitful.
K. B.: And you make a pitch, I think very strongly for what compassion means. I was talking with my friend Nora McInerny, and we are against pity we think. We have a strong negative reaction to pity.
K. B.: But I love your account of what, what compassion means to you.
G.H.: Everyone, at IJM is a little sick of my fascination with Latin roots to words, but I’m just going to keep doing it. But the word compassion comes from these two wonderful Latin roots. Cumpassio. Passio is suffer. Cum is with. So it’s to suffer with. And compassion comes from just getting close to those who are hurting, and one’s heart will be moved and touched and impacted by that. That’s the power of the story of the Good Samaritan. There’s the man who’s beaten along the road. And you have two religious people who specifically says when Jesus was telling the story, they walk on the other side of the road. They specifically do not get close. Then says that the Samaritan had compassion on him and crossed the road. Right. So he allowed himself to pursue sharing in the suffering. And once you do, then you can start to engage. Well. What might I have to contribute? Maybe it’s just my presence.
K. B.: Yeah.
G.H.: But maybe it also is. Oh, I have some access to tools or resources or capacity or power that actually could do something about this.
K. B.: But like different groups. I feel like I have different cultural toolkits for whether and how they should care. I know you go around to people all the time being like please care about the world and human slavery in particular. And that’s like a special kind of work where you have to encourage especially compassionate individuals to have an international scope. And then there’s all kinds of. I’m just using spectrum hands here, like. And then way on the other side of the spectrum.
G.H.: That’s super helpful.
K. B.: Yeah, it’s great. Especially because podcasts are a visual medium. Very helpful.
K. B.: And then on the other side, there are folks who have unbelievably helpful structural and macro understandings and not necessarily are plugged into communities or causes that help them focus on individual cases. And so you’ve got wonderful individuals and wonderful sort of communalist in mindset. And what you’re describing has to be somewhere in which we infuse both with an imagination that we can’t only fix macro level issues that we have to be willing to try even if we can’t fix it all. And then for the individualists that it is worth imagining, not just the plight of one person, but the policies and structures and police forces and justice that keep them in the web where they can never get out.
K. B.: And I feel like America, sorry for just being Canadian for a second, is especially bad at dividing people into those binaries. And it I think it must make it harder to imagine to have like a communal language of what justice is supposed to be like.
G.H.: Yes. I think human beings are not great at holding two true things that are in tension.
K. B.: Yeah.
G.H.: Rather solve a problem, it’s a problem to be solved rather than a tension to be managed. But this is attention to be managed because both are true. A hundred percent true.
K. B.: Yeah.
G.H.: That no, you can’t do everything in the world, but you can probably do more than just one thing.
K. B.: Right, it’s like you can’t maybe care about everybody.
K. B.: But you can usually care about a couple people in particular.
K. B.: There are a lot of religious platitudes about structural inequality. So on Twitter, we see a lot of thoughts and prayers, but little action. And I’ve heard you say prayers, help, but prayers and a lawyer help more.
K. B.: How do you help people escape from some of their clichéd thinking?
G.H.: I think it’s recovering a hope that something tangibly good and worthy is actually possible. While, while at the same time trying to free people from the limitations of their own fears, because I think in some ways the thoughts and prayers is an ejection button to keep thinking about it.
K. B.: Yeah.
G.H.: I’ll just push this. Thoughts and prayers. I don’t want it. I want to push a button. Cause to just hear this terrible thing and not push a button would feel like badly. So I’ll push the thoughts and prayers button, like being, and also sort of volley it to the God of the universe to like straighten out.
K. B.: Yeah.
G.H.: And again, there is a healthy way we actually volley to the God of the universe to straighten the the big stuff out also, but not as a way of escaping for the dignity of responsibility that’s granted to us. This is the moral arc of the universe that MLK would reference. But he’s actually given us the dignity of some responsibility in that. Are we the ones who are actually responsible for bending that moral arc? No, but we are given a little place on it to do our bit of tugging. And it actually matters. And so, yeah. These are tensions we are not meant to hit an ejection button on, but actually sit in. And because on the other side of sitting and dwelling in a in the midst of that and engaging it, we have actually found the most extraordinary joy and exhilaration and love and wonder. So I can tell you, after 20 plus years of immersion in the ugliest, nastiest, horrible things human beings can do to one another. I have experienced such great joy and love and laughter and heartache for sure. But beauty and goodness. And it has been found in the hard stuff.
K. B.: I think the desire to see things clearly to confront the world as it is with a soft heart can be really tiring for people.
K. B.: I’m wondering if you have any advice for people who feel the weariness of compassion, who may be experiencing burnout, who aren’t sure how to keep caring?
G.H.: Oh, yeah. Hundred percent the case. I’m going to talk to NFL football players next week. And one of the things I say about the NFL is there’s a hundred percent injury rate in the game. One hundred percent burnout rate for those who are engaged with human suffering in the world if they do not attend to their own self, care and self-care can be kind of like this squishy word maybe. But it’s impossible to do the work of justice sustainably without attending to the care of one’s own soul. So what does that mean? A couple of things. Joy is the oxygen for doing hard things in the world. And that at IJM we are super intentional about continually recovering joy. There is sometimes a sense if you’re a compassionate person, you should be wallowing in the darkness and the gloom 24/7.
K. B.: I have friends like that. They’re like, oh, well, I guess no one can have a birthday party.
G.H.: Exactly. And we can’t go see, you know, Legally Blonde again or we can’t go have an amazing dinner or. And that is just a vicious lie and it’s a way to go to sure burn out. And so it actually, for us is a discipline of coming back up for air.
K. B.: Yeah.
G.H.: And we refer to it as oxygen. That joy is the oxygen of doing hard things, especially it is joys is the oxygen for doing the work at justice. And so that’s what we are extremely intentional about, is making sure that there is laughter and music and art and silliness and.
K. B.: Yeah.
G.H.: A return to all the goodness and beauty there actually is in the world because again, we’re gonna hold two things in tension that are actually true. Yes, there is suffering and darkness in the world, but there is absolutely beauty and goodness. And so I need to run back and go find my kids and give them a hug and wrestle around and be silly and go have a great meal and go watch, you know, that stand up comedian or whatever it is we want to do. But that is actually part of doing something good in the world for a long time because the people who are suffering and hurting in the world do not need our spasms of passion. What they need is a long faithfulness in the same direction, and that’s sustained only by a discipline of joy.
K. B.: Yeah, no, I was hoping just like essential oils, more candles.
G.H.: Maybe more critical. Yes.
K. B.: I hear what you’re saying.
K. B.: That also we have Jani playing.
G.H.: Well for, depending upon who you are. That might be the most restorative joy.
K. B.: All right. End of the worst day. What’s your big joy infusion?
G.H.: Certainly when I had little kids in the house, a hundred percent just go be with little kids.
K. B.: Yeah.
G.H.: And they’re all grown up out if the house now. So I got nothing. No. For me, it’s a very, very intense physical exercise.
K. B.: Yeah.
G.H.: I have to go to the gym or else I’m not very fun.
K. B.: Yeah. Yeah. I’m still I’m still in the snuggle zone stage.
G.H.: Yeah. I wasn’t sure which which way you were heading with that.
K. B.: Yeah. I’m going on full.
K. B.: Like I had to go to the hospital yesterday for something and it was fine. It just doesn’t feel fine.
K. B.: And then so I come home and I’m lying on the couch and my kid looks at me, goes, Mom, can I. Can I just get into the snuggle zone?
G.H.: Can I?
K. B.: Yeah. Let’s never leave.
G.H.: Oh, my gosh.
K. B.: Gary, thank you so much for talking with me today. I am grateful for the work you do. I am especially grateful for your uncompromising clarity with which you do it. So thanks and bless you.
G.H.: Thank you.
K. B.: I loved it when Gary said joy is oxygen. Yes, man, when you work in jobs where compassion is the work, when you’re a doctor or a pastor or a nurse or a social worker or a teacher. Sometimes it can feel like you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. You might wake up tired and go to bed tired. You feel as though you can’t possibly fix every problem that comes your way because it’s simply too much. We all need the reminder that joy is the way forward, that there’s still room for laughter and beauty and joy even in the hardest, darkest places. It is the only way to continue to do this hard, important work. So what is a moment when you feel the most levity, when it feels like you’re taking a big, deep breath of fresh air? When joy comes naturally? Double down on that. Get in the snuggle zone with your kid, pet your dog or your cat if they’re into that sort of thing. Take a long walk or a long bubble bath. Watch that hilarious show on Netflix everyone is talking about. Yes, compassion is the job, but joy is the oxygen.
K. B.: I’m grateful to our partners and generous donors. The Lilly Endowment, North Carolina Public Radio, WUNC, and Faith and Leadership, an online learning resource who made this episode possible. And a shout out to my super team, Jessica Richie, Keith Weston, Harriet Putman and JJ Dickinson. OK, but for real. Come be human with me. Find me on Instagram or Twitter at Katecbowler. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.
3 thoughts on “Joy is the Oxygen”
Cats are definitely into “that kind of thing!” ;0)
Found you as I was searching youtube for a word in due season from Gary. Pandemic, Racial Injustice…of course we need his philosophical leadership. Chapter 8 of Good News About Injustice changed me forever. I just didn’t know what to do with evil. Kate, your TedMed moved me today. As Gary prepares us to fight evil, you prepare us to endure suffering. So nice to find you today.
I’ve listened to this episode at least three full times now and cry every time. I am a mental health therapist and I share it with interns in our agency. “Compassion is the job but joy is the oxygen” gets me every time. Thank you for giving us permission, for reminding us, to breathe.