India Through the Lens

On September 29, 2011, in Life, Personal, by Chris

I’m getting ready to go to India in less than a week. I gotta get my stuff together:

Shaving Kit… Check.
Protein Bars… Check.
Several Breathable Shirts… Check.
Thirty Pounds of Camera Equipment… What?

I have a confession to make to you, even though we’ve only just met: I have an addiction.

It began almost ten years ago when I took a used 35mm camera, a couple of lenses and three dozen rolls of Kodachrome to a place some ten time zones removed from my home in suburban Detroit. I came back to the lab hoping to goodness that I had captured even an infinitesimal fraction of what I had experienced. I still have those photos in an album and occasionally look back nostalgically at my Indian adventure so long ago.

But it didn’t stop there. I went again a couple of years later. And it wasn’t for more pictures (although this time, I had gone digital!). It was because I missed my friends. I’m sure you’ll get to know a few of them as the stories on this blog unfold, but there are times when I’m with Jaya and the people of CEM that I feel more at home than when I’m in my own living room. Is it comfortable? Not always. But as you’ll hear from so many who have experienced it, we go expecting to bless them and God turns it all around and we end up blessed and changed.

It was then that I started realizing the truth of my “addiction”: Since I can’t bring any of my friends home with me, I need to pack as many of their images as possible into my camera and share their stories with my friends back in the U.S. The encounters that I have with my subjects are often brief, but each one of them conspires to re-shape my heart. I believe in this place so much that I humbly accepted a seat on II360’s board a few years ago.

Since that first trip in 2002, any time I’m on the ground in India (this will be my sixth trip), you will almost always see a camera slung over my shoulder. In all of my travels, I have never experienced a place so intensely human and ultimately beautiful and redeeming as the neighborhoods and villages surrounding the CEM campus in Dowlaiswaram. And I’m never the same after my encounters with the people there.

My passion for photography that found its roots in India has grown into an avocation as a freelance photographer; and I count a couple of moments there among some of the best images I’ve ever captured.

When we get on the ground at CEM, we tend to be very focused on the goings on at the campus, so it’s kind of a tradition for the team to take a tour through the village on Sunday morning and take in the marketplace just to get a clearer sense of the real culture in Dowlaiswaram.

A group of us were at the marketplace one Sunday, and I started a conversation with a boy in a bangle shop without even saying a word. I liked the composition of the bangles with him in the shadows behind them, so I raised my camera and squeezed off a couple of shots. He was caught by the novelty of this big white guy taking his picture and started mugging for the camera. It can actually be quite a trick getting people to relax when you pull out a massive camera like mine.

Obviously, I’m looking for more natural expressions in my shots; so I simply lowered my camera a bit, looked him in the eye and smiled. It didn’t take him long to figure it out and he began to relax and simply interact with me. I still count the resulting shot as the one I would have been willing to endure forty hours of travel time for.

Other encounters are much more brief, but can yield amazing results. On the last day of one of our trips, we were returning to the campus after taking the kids from the Grace Children’s home to school. We had only a little time left before we had to get to the airport for our flight.

There is quite a large Hindu temple on the way back, and you will occasionally see beggars and other locals hanging around its entrance. There was one in particular who caught my eye as I walked – a man who had clearly given his life in pursuit of discipline. I crouched down, engaged with his eyes, raised the camera and got the shot. I would have loved to stay and get to know him a little bit, but I had a plane to catch. I didn’t even realize what I had until I downloaded the image to my computer between flights on the journey home.

I’ve been by that corner since then, but I never saw him again.

I even get the honor of capturing love in action as it unfolds. One of the team’s favorite moments is after the Sunday Service when they get to pray for the locals who attend. It can take an hour or more as we engage with them, hear of their troubles through translators, and seek God together in prayer. I’ll let the interchange between one of our team members and a local woman speak for itself…

I will come home with literally thousands of images after a trip to CEM; but what I have realized is that it’s the relationships and the stories behind those images that make them so rich. So my advice to anyone going to CEM is to bring your camera, but prepare your heart as well.

By the way – there are some exciting projects we have planned for this trip to tell the stories of the elderly of Dowlaiswaram. Stay tuned to!


A Year With Julia

On September 20, 2011, in Julia's Journey, Personal, by Chris

At 6:10pm one year ago today, Julia Paige Cook first drew breath on this good earth. For all of you who have been following our story and praying so faithfully, we have a little video postcard of the last year. Please settle back and celebrate with us!

But that’s not all we have to celebrate today. Jocelyn and I are also celebrating our third anniversary. Last year, Jocelyn was on modified bed rest in preparation for Julia’s birth and was a little sad that she hadn’t found my anniversary present yet. Julia decided to come three weeks early and solve the problem for her.

I think God either has a wry sense of timing or not much faith in my ability to keep dates in my head; but it is kind of convenient to only have to remember one date for my daughter’s birthday and my anniversary!

Thanks again for all of your care in the past year – here’s to many more!

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Bring It + 365

On September 12, 2011, in Commentary, Life, Personal, by Chris

It was a warm Sunday afternoon a year ago that I settled into the comfortable chair in my daughter’s as yet unoccupied nursery to begin the adventure in words and pictures that you see before you.

After recounting the challenges we had seen in the months before and those in the future that seemed to be lining up against us, I began this blog with a simple, scary request of God:

Bring it.

That request was not made lightly or flippantly – but it wasn’t without more than a little trepidation. In fact, it was nearly an act of desperation as Jocelyn and I clung to the possibility that amid the cloud of Julia’s frightening diagnoses of Down Syndrome and heart defect, God was there with us. If he wasn’t, we were going to be in deep, deep weeds.

I hesitate to use such a trite metaphor, but the only way I can describe the last year is that it was a roller coaster. But I will add that it was a roller coaster after your fifth corn dog.

So where are we now? Well, the fact is that I’m writing this at the end of the day with my wife crashed beside me after the bottles have been washed and sterilized and the baby’s in bed. Julia’s had a few fitful nights (teething, we think) and we are all feeling the ache of fatigue that comes from a couple hours less sleep.

But if you’ve been following this little narrative, you’ll know that Julia got through the surgery successfully and the scar on her chest is fading even as the memories of the long days at the hospital fade a bit from our minds.

Honestly, a year after “Bring it” finds me wrestling with a lot of the same questions as before, although their shape and texture have become a touch more conventional as I settle more comfortably into being the dad of a delightful little girl with a mended heart and a tad extra on Chromosome 21. What kind of cruelty will Julia face from others because of her condition? How will she live once we are gone and she is on her own?

A lot of the time, I can push those uncomfortable questions down with a household project or the hum of activity in the office, but it came to the forefront of my mind last Sunday at church as we commemorated the somber tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Since that ugly day, our pastor observed, we as a country have become consumed with security in a very dangerous world. And it was in the middle of the message I got that horrible feeling that I’m really no different.

I am wondering if the crush of the last year has caused me to hang on just a little more tightly to my life, my family and my stuff.

There it is. It’s true that adversity can draw you close to God. But the pernicious flip side is that it can just as easily make you run in the opposite direction. Even when I’ve experienced the Life that is God, I still often find myself clinging dumbly to things that will eventually end up in a landfill, expecting them to give me life.

I hear him asking me, “You’ve trusted me with your life. Will you trust me with Julia’s?” I’m ashamed to tell you that far too often, if I were really honest, the answer would be no.

But here is where I have to go back and do the gut check. Do I still believe that God’s dream for Julia is better than anything I could ever conceive of? And if my faith says that God spoke the universe entire into being, who is more equipped to unlock the best from her (and from me, for that matter)?

Yeah, this “Bring it” thing is hard, hard work sometimes. But all I have to do is listen to the satisfied coos of my daughter and watch my wife as she sleeps beside me, exhausted from the day (“But a good tired,” she says). These are the little reminders that something deeper and more wonderful awaits those who press into life’s occassional discomfort and abandon themselves to the adventure that God has for them.

Here’s to another year.

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Great News from Dr. Weinhouse

On August 24, 2011, in Julia's Journey, Personal, by Chris

Many of you remember the experiment we entered into a few months ago when Dr. Weinhouse, Julia’s cardiologist, took her off of her heart medicine. He decided to see her again at the end of the summer instead of the customary six months, just to make sure that his decision was a good one.

We are always glad for an opportunity to see our friend sooner than later, so Jocelyn and I spent the summer watching Julia’s progress and looked forward to seeing how she fared without the meds that we had thought were going to be needed indefinitely.

It was a strange feeling I had the night before her visit. I’m not sure where it came from, but I got the urge to pray for a good report. I kept going between thinking everything was going to be okay and nagging feeling that heart issues often have very subtle symptoms.

That night, I lit up my Twitter and Facebook community asking them to pray for a good report. I gotta tell you that this is one great group of people who have been so faithfully praying for our family, including a worldwide prayer vigil before her surgery. I honestly don’t know how we could have gotten through this without them.

We went in yesterday morning for the weigh-in (over eighteen pounds now!) and the initial exam. It was so great to see the staff again. They all recognized her and most remembered her name. But it was the echocardiogram that was going to be the real test. Within minutes, Dr. Weinhouse’s face burst into a smile as he said, “WOW! Contractility of 75-80! She is doing fantastic!”

We would find out later that contractility is the heart’s ability to push the blood out, but we didn’t need to know the numbers to understand what was going on. Julia’s heart was working fine without the meds.

So we celebrated and prayed together as always, but I honestly felt a note of bittersweetness at the thought of not seeing our friend as often.

I’ll leave you another prayer request as a postscript. As we walked into the office that morning, reasonably confident that our family was on the other side of this challenge, we saw another family at the beginning of their journey. The parents sat huddled together, a tiny baby on mom’s chest. They nervously shared whispers of half-hearted encouragement as she cuddled the baby and dad cuddled her.

I don’t know their names and we may never know their story; even though I told Dr. Weinhouse to give them our name and number if they needed encouragement. But I saw a very familiar look of stiff-jawed dread on that father’s face. He was right where I was almost a year ago as I searched through every personal and emotional asset for a way to face the coming storm. Fortunately, I had a constellation of friends around me, prophetically reminding me of the comfort God offers for those who are crushed in spirit.

Please pray for that little family at the beginning of their journey, that God would give them the full measure of the encouragement that he gave us.

Thanks so much for your prayers!

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An Eleven Month Dream Cruise

On August 20, 2011, in Julia's Journey, Life, Personal, by Chris

It’s been eleven months to the day since this little bundle came into our lives, and what better way to celebrate than the Woodward Dream Cruise!

Now I know that most of you want the picture of Julia. Don’t worry, it’s coming. But you need to understand what cars are to the Motor City. Nearly a million people come out every year to see the largest one-day automotive event in the world. This is a big…


But the biggest deal in my life is the two girls behind the wheel of this vintage Camaro. The owner was kind enough to let us get Julia’s eleven month old photo in grand style (by the way, the guy is selling it, so if you’re in the market…). The past eleven months has been a roller coaster, but a great adventure. And we’re looking forward to what comes next!

Oh, my! We are only a month away from her first birthday!

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