Monday, December 14, 2009

HERstory: Jennifer Grant

By Jennifer Grant

In her book Dangerous Surrender: What Happens When You Say Yes to God, Kay Warren tells the story of how she became an advocate for people affected by poverty and HIV/AIDS. As you probably know, Warren is the wife of Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California. And, for years, Kay Warren felt that her gifts were overlooked while her husband was ever in the spotlight. But, ultimately, she found her calling.

Warren writes,

“…I’ve found that discovering God’s will often resembles looking at an undeveloped Polaroid photograph. When the camera spits out the picture, the images are gray and shapeless, but the longer you look at the picture, the clearer it becomes.”

After I read those sentences, I laid Warren’s book down in my lap and let the words sink in. A fuzzy Polaroid picture – Warren so precisely put words to the moment I’m in.

I’m 42 and I’m in transition. After 13 ½ years of full-time motherhood, my four children spend their days in school, and my life has freed up a bit. New opportunities are opening up to me as a writer and recently I’ve had the privilege to cover stories I care deeply about. From a young age, I witnessed what life is like for people in some of the world’s most resource-poor settings and now my imagination is stretching its legs a bit, restless to find what is next for me, and how I can make a difference in this world.

A few shapes and colors started to emerge from my blurry Polaroid picture on a recent trip to New York City. The trip was a homecoming of sorts. Although I’ve lived most of my life in Wheaton, IL, my husband and I lived in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn for several years before moving “back home” to start our family. I still miss my Brooklyn neighborhood: the Farmer’s Market at Grand Army Plaza, Lime Rickeys at Tom’s Diner, letting my dog off the leash in Prospect Park, street fairs, the West Indian Carnival, and the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island. It didn’t wear off for me, the novelty of it all.

And there was something else about my recent trip that felt like a homecoming: I spent my days there immersed in conversations about HIV, about cultural practices in Africa, and about how best to empower women. My job, pre-motherhood, was with The Population Council, a non-profit health organization with headquarters in Manhattan. My years there educated me about HIV, female genital mutilation, and gender-based violence. Like Warren, I sometimes held my fingers over my eyes as I looked at photographs or read reports at my desk. I was, as she aptly puts it, “ruined for life.”

Warren writes that on her first two trips to Africa, she encountered a reality she could barely reconcile with her life in Orange County. Warren encourages her readers to be “seriously disturbed and gloriously ruined” as we learn how “the least among us” live in so much of the world – whether the person is dying of AIDS in rural Africa, lies forgotten in a nursing home in Wheaton, IL, or is a child whose promise goes unseen in a ravaged urban neighborhood.

So last week, I attended the 5th Annual World AIDS Day prayer breakfast, hosted by World Vision. I met with advocates for those affected by AIDS in the organization’s New York offices. I was introduced to the work of Golf Fore Africa and World Bicycle Relief. I was inspired by World Vision’s multi-faceted humanitarian programs.

Before working at The Population Council, I’d already been spoiled for life, if not ruined. My parents traveled extensively when I was young. My mother was a college professor and writer; my dad, among other things, an independent filmmaker whose work included making promotional films for organizations such as Compassion International. We traveled to Africa, to Latin America, to Eastern Europe, to southeast Asia.

As a young girl, I remember the sensation of sitting on a plane, secretly wondering where it was we were off to this time. These trips afforded me the chance to see firsthand the contrast between people in some of the world’s most resource-poor settings and my family with our big split level house, our cupboards stocked with food, and our closets full of clothes and toys. We weren’t wealthy by Wheaton standards, but I knew we were rich.

That travel also injected me with a lifelong case of wanderlust. Volcanoes and lush forests in Quito, Ecuador. Spirit houses and ornate shrines in Bangkok. Mist coming off of Victoria Falls. Is the afternoon I spent playing with kids in a dusty yard outside of their orphanage in South America somehow related to the adoption of my daughter, born 30 years later in Guatemala? I don’t know.

Now, with older children, I give more time to my writing. I have the chance to hear women’s health advocates make innovative plans to improve the lives of families around the globe, and I wonder…what is the work I should do? The picture is blurry and I’m waiting for it to come clear. Waiting is hard - as a culture, we quickly dispensed of those old Polaroid cameras when One Hour photo booths began popping up in parking lots and, later, when the little screens on the back of our digital cameras gave us immediate gratification after we clicked the shutter.

But, this Advent, that is just what I’m doing. Waiting. Waiting for the image to develop. Walking forward with faith, giving that blurry image a shake, tentatively entering what feels like a new part of my life. God knows what awaits me there.

Jennifer Grant is a journalist and mother of four who writes for the Chicago Tribune Find her online at

Other website's Jennifer recommends: (, World Bicycle Relief, (, World Vision (, Kay Warren (, The Population Council (


  1. Oh my goodness. I have been praying for encourgement. Thank you for this story.

    I wanted to encourage you as well. I was born in Kentucky, but was raised in North Carolina. There are many family members who still live in the "hallars" (hollows of the valley of the Kentucky mountains). Their live style was labeled by a sociologist as the "invisible poor" (USA Today Magazine, May 1, 2004, Vol. 132, Issue 2708, p. 80)

    They are defined as invisible because they are so deep in the hallars or they are so remote from town that no one knows the depth of their poverty or the invisible poor are invisible because they cover their lifestyle with a facade of social acceptance, clothes, car, but no running water or electricity.

    Because this blog site will not allow me to cut and paste, please google the key words Diane Sawyer and Kentucky poor. The air date was Feburary 2009.

    Thank you for writing. It was God breathed.

  2. Thank you Nancy! I just saw this comment. Would love to hear what has been going on in your journey since February.