Editor’s Pick: Interview with Andy Gray of Global Adventure and Photosensibility.com

Photo by Andrew Gray at Photosensibility.com.

Photo by Andrew Gray at Photosensibility.com.

Last week we published a video post we titled “Inspiration in Cambodia,” which showed how one man is making a huge difference in the lives of Cambodia’s poor and his efforts to help the people help themselves. This week, we get to talk to the individual behind the making of that video, Andy Gray, who has served as our bridge into the village of Andong and the lives and needs of Cambodia’s poor.

Based out of Tokyo, Japan, Gray serves as the eyes behind the photo blog Photosensibility.com, which acts as a window into his and his wife’s work in their non-profit venture Global Adventure.

In Gray’s own words, Global Adventure takes “small groups of people from Japan to see another side of life in Cambodia. We go to build relationships, learn, and serve in simple ways. We spend most of our time at an orphanage about 50km outside Phnom Penh.”

Andy was generous enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk with me about Global Adventure. Below you will find the contents of our interview, and you will also find a link to his photo blog on our sidebar:

How would you summarize the work of Global Adventure?

I take small groups of people, mainly from Japan, to Cambodia. We spend most of our time at a “children’s community” caring for kids orphaned by AIDS. Some of the children are HIV positive themselves, as are most of the staff. We are also building a partnership with a Cambodian man who lives and works with the people of Andong Village, a very poor community of displaced people (urban poor forced from the slum homes in the city to make room for development).

We help in very simple ways. We play with kids, teach Japanese activies and games, go hiking to nearby ruins, play volleyball, paint, sing, etc. Last time we built a water rocket using a Pepsi bottle, cork and a bicycle pump. We don’t have an intense schedule, and the specific things we do depend on the type of volunteer group we have.

From the beginning I knew that we would be the needy ones. I knew that the kids would be our teachers. I tell people, now is the time to be learners. After you learn, then think of helping. If they go with that attitude and simply share their lives, I know they will have a positive impact and come away changed.

I was aware that volunteer groups are often a burden for their hosts. And unless a group has specialized skills, work projects are not necessarily that great. Work projects don’t justify the cost of thousands of dollars to fly across the world to “help” the poor, and they even cost local people jobs (who could have done the work themselves). It’s honest to admit that we do this for ourselves, and I think it’s best if it’s the beginning of a lifetime of heightened awareness and concern for others.

How did Global Adventure get started? What was the inspiration behind it?

I was living in Japan with my wife and kids. Japan is not an easy place to connect relationally. It’s pretty isolating as a culture, and people are always busy. I fondly remember experiences living in Mexico and a summer spent in Soweto, South Africa. I also lived for years in East Los Angeles working with youth. In short, a part of my heart longs for connection with such people and places.

As I thought about this, I realized that many Japanese people would benefit by leaving Japan to connect with people – the poorest of the poor. They would make life changing discoveries. And perhaps some would return to Japan and keep working together, and that would be a great bonus (to have that kind of community here).

I didn’t have a country in mind at the start, but we had several connections in Cambodia. I talked with one of them, and he really understood what I wanted to do. I asked if he knew a place where we could help in simple ways without being a burden. He immediately had the two suggestions, and both turned out to be good matches. Now with each return trip, my sense of partnership in each place is growing. It’s exciting.

My inspiration is to know God, who is love. Love is the greatest adventure. I’m not advocating a religious program or teaching religion on these trips. I’m not religious in ways you might expect, but I read the Bible, pray, and follow Jesus with a sense that this (God with us in love) is Reality. That amazes and encourages me.

How has Global Adventure impacted your Japanese participants?

It impacts them deeply. We will have our first reuninion with past participants in April, so I’ll find out more about the lasting effects then.

I remember on our first trip, after spending all morning in a poor slum at a program for disabled children, I began asking a reflective question. Both participants only spoke Japanese, so I was asking in Japanese. My Japanese is not great, and judging by their silence I thought I must have worded it badly. I tried again, and they seemed to squirm a little. Now I was worried that I’d said something offensive, so I backed off. Later we met with a Japanese friend in Cambodia who is fluent in English, and they talked and talked. I was curious, so I asked her to check if I had offended or confused them earlier. She checked, and she told me, “They said your question was very good, but they will need time to answer. Wait at least a day, and then they will be able to respond.” After that I realized that Japanese people are often impacted deeply, but unlike other cultures (like Americans) they don’t have much experience expressing their feelings outloud. But doing so is a freeing, revealing experience.

Here’s a shorter story. One former participant infomed us that she had been very withdrawn from her family and society. In Cambodia, the children loved her, and she began to love them back. She wrote and told us, “I had never experienced love. Now I know what love is.”

Another time a participant asked the director of the orphanage how to solve the problem of poverty. He replied that poverty is a heart condition. By the end of that conversation, the participant realized that people in Japan are poor — emotionally and relationally — in ways she hadn’t seen before.

What is the most memorable person/story you have encountered during your time running the program?

On our last trip, I held a baby who was sick with AIDS. I fed her, and she slept on my lap. They said she was in bad condition, but she ate well and slept peacefully. I have three daughters, and I have many memories of holding them when they were sick and praying for their coughing to stop. Anyone with kids will know the feeling. So there in Cambodia, I began to think that we could work together and nurture the baby, Srey Peak, past the infection that had entrenched itself in her chest. But that night she died in her sleep. I wrote about this on my blog (at www.photosensibility.com), so anyone can go there for the full story.

I once wrote and posted a poem on my blog entitled, “To love a child with AIDS.” I don’t write poetry, but that day only a poem would work. It’s about the risk of loving someone with an incurable disease. Many children with HIV have become my friends, and I already feel a desire to stick with them as they grow up. That means I want them to grow up. They are all taking ARV medications, so they are healthy. But there are no  guarantees for them. In Cambodia, two types of medication for HIV are available, and if/when those stop working they have no other options. In developed countries there are many options, so doctors can keep creating new combinations of medications. It’s chilling to think that one of my young friends could die because of a lack of medicines that are easily available in the wealthy nations.

Almost 33 million people worldwide have HIV, and more than 30 million have already died. But drug companies fought tooth and nail to keep the first cheap generic versions of their drugs out of the production, and even now the poor basically get the leftovers.

(The baby died because the family didn’t know she had AIDS and hadn’t taken her for treatment in time.)

What lessons have you taken away from all of this?

I feel like my life is one big lesson in progress. Last time I returned to Japan, I rode the train home thinking that all the other people on board were living in a daze. I didn’t want to go back to that dull way of living. Of course, I easily slip into habits (getting absorbed in pointless movies, web surfing, etc.). Real change comes by the grace of God, I think, and by seeing things that are so great that the distractions and temptations lose their allure.

You’re probably thinking of more concrete lessons. Actually, I’m a slow learner when it comes to common sense (ask anyone who knows me). I’m not the type of person to organize all my lessons and try to do things the “right” way. When I find something good, I go again and again, and I like good coffee. But when it comes to organization and ordinary details, I’m intuitive, and for better or worse I often find myself learning as I go. That’s probably why I love the idea that life is an adventure.

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