RVs, Uniforms, Airplanes, and Rockstars: My Personal Story of Social Justice

I lived with four strangers in an RV for two months this summer.

I majored in musical theater in college, so it was only a matter of time before I lived in a van. Only this time it’s not for the sake of my art. I’m on tour with a non-profit organization called Got Your Back. I’m working as an intern — selling T-shirts and speaking about the mission of GYB. For every “Got Your Back” T-shirt purchased ($20), we provide a school uniform to a child living in extreme poverty who cannot attend school without one.

Seventy million children around the world are not in school. That’s more than the entire population of the United Kingdom. We tend to feel sorry for these kids and hope the best for them, but how much actual hope can we give them if they can’t even read or write their own names? How do we expect them to be successful?

Enter Got Your Back. Each T-shirt is a gateway for a child to receive an education in one of our partnerships with Haiti or Kenya. Shirt for shirt.

I know what you’re thinking:
That’s a lot of information.
This gig isn’t really related to musical theater whatsoever.

I agree.

Hearing about another new non-profit can sometimes feel like a backhanded compliment. You know that each organization is trying to do some good in their corner of the world. However, every time you hear about another corner of the world in need, it’s very likely the story will involve you meeting that need somehow. That generally involves either your time or money, both of which are valuable commodities. 

And if we’re honest, it can be overwhelming. Compassion fatigue is a real issue, and I don’t like being “sold” to. As soon as I feel like someone wants something from me, I’m not interested.

But instead of letting the world become one Venti-sized cup of Lost Cause or one tangled Christmas light-yarn ball of Overwhelming Mess, I think we need to do three things. One: we need it to be specific. Two: we need to accept the invitation. Three: we need to run with it.

My story began with one suggestion.

When I was 18 years old, I wrestled with whether to attend Greenville College in my home state of Illinois or venture south to Florida to study the arts. One was a safer bet; the other a little more risky. My whimsical side obviously leaned toward Florida, but there was a major logistical problem: I was terrified of flying.

My pastor encouraged me to go to the school that would force me to trust God the most. Gulp. You know what that meant . . . flying to college. In Florida. You may enjoy whirling through the air at hundreds of miles per hour, riding in planes that contain life vests but not parachutes, hopefully dodging a catastrophic LOST-like crash, but such thoughts kept me up at night. I decided to go anyway. It was my first big risk. And I tend to find that one big risk begets another. 

“MMMBop” Mmm . . . Really?
I had no clue about the problems in Africa until 2007 when I graduated college. I knew what many of you likely know: it’s a big continent, it’s far away, and it has a lot of issues. But I was about to learn a lot more.

My journey toward Africa began as a barefoot walk with my favorite band in the streets of Chicago. I had been a fan of Hanson since middle school, but this was the first time I had met them, aside from one chance encounter in August 2003. This time it was a little more structured and we were peers, walking shoulder-to-shoulder. We were going to change the world.

If you aren’t a fan of Hanson, you may not grasp the enormity of how I felt. Imagine being the same age as U2, growing up alongside them, being a fan for half of your life, then Bono invites you to join his team in changing the world.

Hanson began by talking about a new philanthropic for-profit shoe company, TOMS, that provides shoes for children in need. We walked one mile together, pausing halfway to talk about their recent personal experiences in South Africa. They spoke about how each of us has the ability to make small but tangible changes for people in extreme poverty.  We even walked barefoot to put ourselves in touch with a practical need which most of us overlook every day. We took ourselves just slightly out of our comfort zones. We got our feet dirty in solidarity with children who walked barefoot every day, and then we each bought a pair of TOMS.

At the end of our one-mile trek, Hanson (Isaac, Taylor, and Zac) gave $1 for each fellow-walker to one of five partnerships they had formed. We were able to choose where our dollar went. Our walk could benefit TOMS, help provide clean water wells through Blood:Water Mission, provide medication to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV, help fund the building of a new school, or provide new technology that enabled doctor-to-patient communication for vital HIV status information in developing countries. 

Hanson invited us into their story and showed us ways to get involved. I wasn't paralyzed with the enormity of the need. I was informed and empowered — not to solve all of the world's problems, not to end poverty or cure AIDS, but to start doing something.

I began following in the band’s bare footsteps. Organizing walks. Speaking out about the Take the Walk campaign. For every person who walked with me, Hanson again gave $1 toward one of the five causes they promoted. I organized walks mobilizing about 500 people toward action on behalf of those in need.  

As I looked back over that year, I desired to make a change in my own life. I wrote down what had been the most life-giving experiences, and organizing walks for the Take the Walk campaign topped my list.

So I moved to Nashville. I loved my hometown of Chicago, but I encountered an increasing sense of restlessness and a distinct lack of soul-friendships I had grown accustomed to in college. At the time, New York was still too lonely and expensive, and Florida's sandcastles had shifted since I left. The other option was Nashville. My brother's band, Paper Route, was based out of Nashville. That made the thought of transitioning to a new community much less daunting. And Nashville is home not only to country music but also many non-profit organizations, three of which I have worked for and volunteered with since moving.

Fast forward to the fall of 2010. My church announced they would be taking a small group to Uganda in the spring to visit a place called the Village of Hope, a community for formerly abducted child soldiers. I knew I had to go. It was a trip three years in the making since I had taken my first barefoot walk with Hanson in the streets of Chicago.  

It was time to go and see. What had been secondhand information was about to become firsthand. What started as one band’s experience had become a catalyst for a new trajectory in my own story. To borrow from author John Eldredge, “The heart speaks the language of story.”

The fact that I finally journeyed to Africa was ironic and amusing for several reasons despite my interest in the deep needs of Africa.

First of all, I'm completely broke. I studied musical theater and dance in college, remember? And I've had about 9 part-time jobs and/or internships in the past 1.5 years.

Secondly, I don't like weird food. I know, I know. I should be more cultured. But my idea of a refined palate is upgrading from Taco Bell to Chipotle.  

And as I stated before, I don't like flying. It took two and a half days and five airplanes to get there. Fortunately, I had been liberated from much of my fear of flying since I decided to go to college out-of-state. If I hadn’t done that, I’m certain I never would have gone to Africa. It started with one challenge, one risk. I was primed for it.

Since moving to Nashville, I’ve pondered the question of how creatives and social justice can work together. I’ve been working and searching and playing with how I might fit into this kind of role in society. More practically, how do you keep yourself afloat while trying to swim? When people ask what your occupation is, what do you say? How laughable is it to say “aspiring philanthropist”?

I know people in their twenties are expected to be like this. We're meant to be adventuresome. Activists. Advocates. Passionate movers. Naive, brave, stupid, broke, hopeful, cynical, postmodern folks. But I’m not riding on the wings of optimism. I’m not driven by youthful idealism. I still feel as though I have toddler legs in learning about the world.

My hope is to spend my waking hours working on something I’m connected to — something that is excellent and meets needs beyond myself. I want to work alongside creative people who are making a larger impact on the world around them. I want to help them thrive. My desire is to have the freedom to invest my waking hours exhausting all of my faculties — my strengths, my skills, my passions — on behalf of a cause I'm passionate about. And yes, even a cause that needs me.   

I’m not saying that everyone needs to quit their job and live in an RV, or apply to Greenpeace, or “give more money to Africa.” What I am saying is that we were made for this. We were made for a “dare to be great” kind of adventure that might involve taking a few calculated risks. It might involve giving more of your attention to the things still on your periphery. It might mean giving more than 10%. It might mean tithing less of your money and more of your heart. It might mean a gut-check about how important being comfortable is in life. It might mean facing the truth that you still haven’t found what you’re looking for.

One thing I do know is that my salvation doesn’t lie in what I can do for the world. No matter how much good I may attempt to do, there will still be good left undone. And no matter how much good I actually accomplish, it can’t make God love me more than He already does. I go out into the world to serve and love because the same worth and value God speaks over my life is the same worth and value He speaks over every life.

What I’ve learned is that God would cross an ocean to tell me He loved me. To tell me that some of the things that have been done to me are wrong. That my mistakes can be forgiven and healed. To tell me that I am not a mistake.  To tell me that He’s bigger than my failures. And that amidst all of this grand, vast, beautiful, and broken world, He sees me.

And He sees you.

And He invites us into His story of reconciling the “what is” and the “what should be.” He invites us into His story of taking messed up people and using us to heal and restore a messed up world. This is what God does behind the scenes all of the time.

Take it from me, dear friends. You can affect real change in this world. And the world is waiting.

Got Your Back Movement
Blood:Water Mission
Mocha Club
Invisible Children
Philanthropy Fashion
Red Earth Trading Company

Suggested reading:
Journey of Desire by John Eldredge

Andrea Howat is currently working as an independent assistant within the music industry in Nashville, TN. When she's not living in an RV, you may find her "hoofing" (rhythm tap), practicing photography, or citing obscure 90s pop culture references. She aspires to promote hard-working artists and causes close to the heart of God. She hopes to work alongside artists who use their influence to make a greater impact in the world. Ms. Howat has begun plans to start a philanthropic business, just as soon as she can figure out what "capital" is. Andrea is also passionate about spiritual formation and soul friendship for artists in the entertainment industry. Other writings by Ms. Howat are available on her spiritual formation blog, Starving Artist Soul.

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