2004, I left the streets of New York City for the shores of West Africa. I’d made my living for years in the big Apple promoting top nightclubs and fashion events, for the most part living selfishly and arrogantly. Desperately unhappy, I needed to change. Faced with spiritual bankruptcy, I wanted desperately to revive a lost Christian faith with action and asked the question: What would the opposite of my life look like?
I signed up for volunteer service aboard a floating hospital with a group called MERCY SHIPS, a humanitarian organization which offered free medical care in the world’s poorest nations. Operating on surgery ships, they’d built a 25-year track record of astonishing results, yet I’d never heard of them.
Top doctors and surgeons from all over the world left their practices and fancy lives to operate for free on thousands who had no access to medical care. I soon found the organization to be full of remarkable people. The chief medical officer was a surgeon who left Los Angeles to volunteer for two weeks – 23 years ago. He never looked or went back. I took the position of ship photo journalist, and immediately traveled to Africa. At first, being the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court felt strange. I traded my spacious midtown loft for a 150-square-foot cabin with bunk beds, roommates and cockroaches. Fancy restaurants were replaced by a mess hall feeding 400+ Army style. A prince in New York, now I was living in close community with 350 others. I felt like a pauper.
But once off the ship, I realized how good I really had it. In new surroundings, I was utterly astonished at the poverty that came into focus through my camera lens. Often through tears, I documented life and human suffering I’d thought unimaginable. In West Africa, I was a prince again. A king, in fact. A man with a bed and clean running water and food in my stomach.
I fell in love with Liberia – a country with no public electricity, running water or sewage. Spending time in a leper colony and many remote villages, I put a face to the world’s 1.2 billion living in poverty. Those living on less than $365 a year – money I used to blow on a bottle of Grey Goose vodka at a fancy club, before tips.
Our medical staff would hold patient intake “screenings” and thousands would wait in line to be seen, many afflicted with deformities even Clive Barker hadn’t thought of. Enormous, suffocating tumors – cleft lips, faces eaten by bacteria from water-borne diseases. I learned many of these medical conditions also existed here in the west, but were taken care of – never allowed to progress. The amount of blind people without access to the 20-minute cataract surgery that could restore their sight astonished me – all part of this new world.
Over the next eight months, I met patients who taught me the meaning of courage. Many of them had been slowly suffocating to death for years and yet pressing on. Praying, hoping, surviving. It was an honor to photograph them. It was an honor to know them.
For me, charity is practical. It’s sometimes easy, more often inconvenient, but always necessary. It’s the ability to use one’s position of influence, relative wealth and power to affect lives for the better. Charity is singular and achievable.
There’s a biblical parable about a man beaten near death by robbers. He’s stripped naked and lying by the roadside. Most people pass him by, but one man stops. He picks him up and bandages his wounds. He puts him on his horse and walks alongside until they reach an inn. He checks him in and throws down his Amex. “Whatever he needs, until he gets better.”
Because he could.
The dictionary defines charity as simply the act of giving voluntarily to those in need. It’s taken from the word “caritas,” or simply, love. In Colossians 3, the Bible instructs readers to “put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.”
Although I’m still not sure what that means, I love the idea. To wear charity.
This video is worth your time: