PSR alum shares stories of catastrophe and empowerment

December 10, 2009

Jeffrey in a displaced person's camp in DarfurA Master of Divinity may seem like an unlikely set of credentials for an international journalist, but Paul Jeffrey (MDiv 1980) sees parallels between his education at PSR and his career as a writer and photographer.

“Good theology is born of good questions, and that's the starting point for the ministry as well as journalism. Practitioners who come to either one with already formed answers aren't going to do well,” Jeffrey explains. “There's also a commonality in the willingness that's needed to stick oneself into other people's lives, whether they are parish members or rural Cambodian farmers.”

His most recent trip, a visit to Cambodia to write about human trafficking and photograph a story about faith-based projects addressing HIV and AIDS, is typical of his multi-pronged approach to journalism and faith. His travels most often bring him to impoverished areas facing crises, from the tsunami in Sri Lanka to the humanitarian, political, and environmental crisis in Darfur.

If his assignments seem to focus on catastrophe, that is not by accident. The Eugene, Oregon-based journalist finds himself drawn to regions facing disasters partly because emergencies reveal underlying inequities, whether they be rooted in economics, gender, religion, or politics. His book Where Mercy Fails: Darfur’s Struggle to Survive, for example, documents the extreme violence and poverty that fill the lives of the displaced Sudanese victimized by the ongoing plight in Darfur. Yet his subjects don’t meekly accept their unfortunate circumstances; one of Jeffrey’s goals is cataloguing how “victims” confront their disadvantages and work to improve their situations.

Like the enterprising people he writes about and photographs, Jeffrey refuses to let the heartbreaking conditions he encounters overwhelm him. “What keeps me going are those pockets of hope that inevitably spring up, where ordinary people do extraordinary things to fight for justice, to foster reconciliation, to build peace,” he says. “I get excited about telling their stories, because they encourage us all to more hopeful, more loving, and more just behavior.”

The stories Jeffrey focuses on seldom find home in the mainstream media. The news tends to favor the “official” perspectives of politicians, generals, and celebrities rather than citizens, especially those who have been marginalized. Those individuals living on the fringes of society—the ones ignored by most news outlets—are precisely the people Jeffrey seeks out.

“My job as a journalist, whether in words or in print, is to share someone else's story,” Jeffrey says. “So when I write or photograph I'm more concerned about whose voice has been left out of the larger discussion. That's often a woman's voice, or a child's, and it comes from below, from the edges.”

Jeffrey contends that amplifying their voices both instigates change and fulfills a spiritual calling. “I think God wants us to hear the voices, to see the conditions, to tell the stories of those who suffer, who are crucified every day by globalized economies that manufacture poverty,” he says. “The more we can listen to those voices and hear those stories, the more faithful we can be in understanding and proclaiming good news.”