Podcast

Episode 83 – Jeremy Courtney, Loving on the Frontlines

Who is your enemy? Who is your friend? To consider those questions we spend time with Jeremy Courtney, founder and president of Preemptive Love Coalition. Preemptive Love is a “coalition stretching across Iraq, Syria, the United States, and beyond, working together to unmake violence and create the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.” Lean in as Jeremy and Jessica work to re-frame the idea of good and evil, as well as help us understand some of the current conflicts around the globe—and how we can be a part of bringing peace.

jeremycourtney

TRANSCRIPT

Jessica: Hey everyone! Welcome back to the Going Scared podcast. This is your host Jessica Honegger, founder of the social impact fashion brand Noonday Collection. Join me here every week for conversations on living lives of purpose by leaving comfort and going scared.

I’ve been looking forward to sharing today’s conversation with you. It’s with my friend Jeremy Courtney. Jeremy is the founder and president of Preemptive Love Coalition, which is an international relief organization engaging on the frontlines of the world’s most polarizing conflicts in Iraq and in Syria. I’ve known Jeremy for many years now, and I wanted to have him on the show because I wanted him to break down what is happening in Syria, especially in regard to the recent Kurdish conflict. I needed someone to break this down for me, so if you are needing a 101 on the conflict, today’s episode is for you.

What I love about our conversation, though, is Jeremy really does give us very applicable, everyday, practical things that we can do to engage in bringing peace. He recently authored the book Love Anyway: An Invitation Beyond a World that’s Scary as Hell, and his story and his journey are an invitation to discover the more beautiful world on the frontlines right where you live.

 

Preemptive Love Coalition: A Life-saving Global Community

So, why don’t we just start off by you giving us the 101 on the Preemptive Love Coalition, the organization that you founded?

Jeremy: So, we exist to end war. And to end war, we’re trying to build the largest, most diverse community of peacemakers on the planet, which means not just donors and people who like a Facebook page, but the actual people on the ground in places of conflict and places who are maybe not yet in conflict but might be headed that direction, like the United States, for example. So, we’re trying to build this community globally, that’s connected to one another, that cares about one another, that has the capacity to listen to one another and understand various perspectives on really hard issues. And then we do stuff together. We actually do concrete life-saving work together. So, we show up on the frontlines and provide emergency food and shelter for people who are getting bombed like our Kurdish and Christian friends in northeastern Syria today. And then, we stick around in communities of conflict and help them rebuild through a robust job-building program.

“We exist to end war. And to end war, we’re trying to build the largest, most diverse community of peacemakers on the planet. … We’re trying to build this community globally, that’s connected to one another, that cares about one another, that has the capacity to listen to one another and understand various perspectives on really hard issues. And then we do stuff together. We actually do concrete life-saving work together.” Jeremy Courtney

Jessica: Tell me a little bit about how Preemptive Love has evolved. Because when I first met you, it was a long time ago. I think we both spoke together at something called Idea Camp, which just hearkens me way back to the day. And a lot of what you spoke about was Jewish-Palestinian relations and heart surgeries. I mean, there was still always a theme of peacemaking and going into places of conflict with love and being a bridge-builder. But now, your organization does so many different things. And I just wanna hear about that evolution. Because as the leader of an organization myself that has evolved over the last nine years, I’m curious what that journey has been for you.

Jeremy: Yes. So, we moved overseas shortly after 9/11. And I was at a foundational, very malleable, I guess, age when 9/11 happened, had just graduated college, just gotten married, and I was wet cement. And I think 9/11 helped put an imprint in who I was as a person, how I was forming as a person. And we set out overseas in that vein with that trauma upon us, with those hopes and aspirations that we could fix the post-9/11 world, and in many ways, arrived in the Middle East to find that it was different than we had been told. It was different than we had been taught.

It was different than the simple story that me and I think a lot of us felt like we’d received over the years. And so, it was in that kind of waking up to new realities, waking up to more complex stories in the middle of the Iraq War height of sectarian violence, but violence that wasn’t so clearly “these are the good guys and these are the bad guys, and the United States is the sole righteous arbiter of truth and justice in the region” that we founded Preemptive Love.

And we started the organization really after I met one little girl in a hotel lobby in Iraq. Her dad had come to me for a meeting. Another guy had brokered and this dad presents this little girl to me and says, "She needs a life-saving heart surgery or she’s gonna die. You’re an American. Clearly, you came here to help us and our people. Would you help my little girl? Save her life, please." And this led us down a quest to help one little girl, but other kids just started coming out of the woodwork. And it was one child after another, after another, as we started gaining a reputation for being the family and then the organization that would help these last-chance children.

And I guess that started us down this road of doing hard things, taking big risks, taking long shots on, at that time, it was medical conditions and families that the odds were stacked against them. But that’s not where it stopped as the wars and the conflicts continued to change.

“We started the organization really after I met one little girl in a hotel lobby in Iraq. … This dad presents this little girl to me and says, ‘She needs a life-saving heart surgery or she’s gonna die.’ … And this led us down a quest to help one little girl, but other kids just started coming out of the woodwork. … We started gaining a reputation for being the family and then the organization that would help these last-chance children.” Jeremy Courtney

 

Complex Solutions to Complex Problems

Jessica: It’s interesting. I don’t know why this week happened the way it did. But I interviewed Melissa Russell yesterday, president of North America International Justice Mission. After you, I’m interviewing Shannon Sedgwick Davis, the CEO of the Bridgeway Foundation. And what I’m struck by and I’m looking forward to talking to Shannon because she actually got extremely myopic and she completely focused all of the Bridgeway’s resource or most of them, I don’t know about all, on Kony and saying. "I’m the Lord’s Resistance Army, this is what we are gonna take down. We are going to end this genocide in this very small region of the world." And I love Uganda and I just appreciated that commitment. And then, of course, Melissa Russell is over at IJM, which has scaled now all over the world.

So, was there a moment … because when I first met you, I was like, "Heart surgery." I hadn’t even thought of that, and I just remember you sharing really powerful stories of Palestinians operating on Jewish people and vice versa. And I thought, "Wow, it does not get more poignant reconciliation until you literally place your life in your enemy’s hands in that way but in a way that heals." So, how did you go about … you said it started with emergency medical care but then, how did you sort of decide where to go? Or I’m sure there’s not a lot of decision-making when you’re in crisis, war zones. It’s really you’re just responding to crisis. But tell me how that scale has evolved.

Jeremy: I think one way of reading our story is that we moved to this exotic place and we ended up doing these exotic things. And it’s just adventuresome and exotique every step of the way. But that really … to whatever degree there’s truth in that, it kind of ceased to be true after day one of living in Iraq because after day one, it was just our neighborhood. It was our people. It was our home. And then, it was our home situated in a larger cultural context and regional reality of war and proxy wars.

And so, somewhere along the way, it ceased to be about any single thing and became about the contextual situation that gave rise to the birth defects in the first place. We didn’t wanna just keep providing one-off surgeries for kids. We started working on systems with the Iraqi government to transform their whole healthcare system. Well, why did their healthcare system need to be transformed? Well, partly because of 30 years of dictatorship, which was predicated on various balance-of-power issues, but also because of U.S. interventionism and UN sanctions that destroyed the country, well, why is a country like Iraq or Syria, or Iran, or North Korea so prone to sanctions? Why are they so crippled by sanctions?

So, then we … just every new question and every new era started unfolding greater contextual realities that we … every story is just more complex than you often realize it is when you set out on a journey. And so, I think our solutions and our vision for what it would mean to really be healers in the region or agents of healing, our vision just kept expanding as the complexities of life kept unfolding to us as well. A lot of these kids were sick, with birth defects. At least, the allegations were that they were sick because of the weapons used against them, Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons on the one hand, but also United States’ usage of very questionable, specious weapons on the other hand.

And if we wanted to combat or heal the generational effects of these weapons, we were going to have to address the underlying things that led us to war in the first place. And so, from the very early days, we pretty much had our eyes set on wanting to end war. We just didn’t necessarily have the boldness to state it that way from day one. But the foundations of the organization…

“Every story is just more complex than you often realize it is when you set out on a journey. And so, I think our solutions and our vision for what it would mean to really be healers in the region or agents of healing, our vision just kept expanding as the complexities of life kept unfolding to us as well.” Jeremy Courtney

 

The Humility to Doubt and the Courage to Love

Jessica: It is an audacious thing and I love it. It’s so audacious.

Jeremy: I mean, the language, Preemptive Love Coalition, it’s all predicated on some of these ideas. It’s all a bit of a turn of phrase on the notions that got us into these wars in the first place. But our basic conviction is if men and women can start wars, then men and women can stop.

Jessica: So, how do you … you said that you started off in the U.S. with this one version of the story and that you were gonna go solve. You said, "We were gonna solve a problem in the Middle East." And then, you get to the Middle East. You moved to Iraq with your wife. And did you guys have kids at the time?

Jeremy: Our daughter, Emma, was one when we moved into Iraq. She was born in neighboring Turkey.

Jessica: OK. And how many kids do you guys have now?

Jeremy: Two, 14 and 12 years old now. So basically, their whole lives have been Iraq.

Jessica: Iraq. OK. So then, you get to Iraq and you realized, "This is a complex story. This isn’t black and white. This isn’t good versus evil necessarily." Now that you are working in multiple conflict zones, how are you continuing to hold the tension of a complex story? Do you challenge the biases that you already bring to these conflicts every day? And I’ll tell you where I’m going with this. But yeah, how are you holding that tension of loving the enemy, whoever the enemy is, in your story while still working … yeah, what does it look like to work towards peace, I guess?

Jeremy: I think once you realize you’ve been fundamentally wrong at least once in your life on a total world-view kind of issue, once you can admit that you’ve been wrong and then humbly live with the reality that you’ve been wrong at least once, it makes it easier to walk forward in the humility or the doubt that you might be wrong again. I might be wrong today.

If I was wrong before, even though I once held that position with such conviction, then the position that I hold today with such conviction might be wrong, might be revealed to be wrong later on as well. So, I think walking more with doubt or you might prefer to call it humility on matters about others and how we see others, but also matters of how I see myself, how I see my tribe and my people … this applies now to me with foreign policy, humanitarian development principles, values, but also theology, faith, spirituality, psychology kind of stuff. I think I just carry everything with a greater dose of doubt right now. And I’ve found that to make me a more peaceful person.

“If I was wrong before, even though I once held that position with such conviction, then the position that I hold today with such conviction might be wrong. … I think I just carry everything with a greater dose of doubt right now. And I’ve found that to make me a more peaceful person.” Jeremy Courtney

Jessica: So, let’s move into this because I feel like that doubt that I don’t know where to get the story from is why I … oh, gosh, I’m getting way too boggled and vulnerable on this podcast.

Jeremy: Do it.

Jessica: I do get overwhelmed. And I think because I am in this work every day, kind of, I can get a little bit of a checked-box approach. I can think I’m doing something, and I can’t also take in whatever’s happening in Syria. Nah, nah, nah, nah, close my ears. I’m just gonna write a check to the Preemptive Love Coalition. And I don’t know if that’s compassion fatigue or if it’s self-protection, or if it’s just the wrong point of view. It’s having a scarcity mentality on love, right, that somehow I feel like I can’t also take this in to.

And I think because of that reason, I come with you to humility and all of our listeners today to say, "I know about the crisis, but I haven’t given myself the space to really get in and understand what exactly is happening." So, in full humility, could you please treat me like I am born in a small country somewhere that has never heard of Syria and tell me a little bit more about what’s happening in Turkey and the withdraw from Syria? How can you explain to us what has happened?

Jeremy: I appreciate that. So, like any story, and this feels very important for me to say as someone who wants to work for peace, it does matter profoundly where you insert yourself in the story, where you choose to pick up the story. So, I could choose to pick up the story three weeks ago. I could choose to start eight years ago. I could choose to start three decades ago. And all of that will determine perhaps who any one of us perceive to be the good guy or the bad guy in the story.

Jessica: And I’m always aware of that, which is why I’m like, "I don’t know who’s good and who’s bad. But I’ll just give money to someone who’s helping."

Jeremy: Yes. I think there’s a lot of value in approaching it that way. Everyone’s good and right in their own mind. And I think it’s important to try and hold that tension. And I do still believe that there are such things as true goodness and true badness in the world. They may not manifest in every conflict. They may not be perfectly discernible from every headline. But I don’t think every action is just objectively equal in the world.

 

The Syrian Conflict Explained

So, let me walk it back a little bit. And I’m still inserting myself at a particular point in the story. But can we go back 100 years and basically it’s where it feels…

Jessica: OK. I know because this is where history occurred, right?

World War I: Carving Up Nations

Jeremy: Yeah. So, I think you’ve got two major players in the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire. And at the end of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, this whole region is carved up at the end of World War I, the lines are drawn in the sand and we get the nation states, many of the nation states that we have today including modern-day Turkey, modern-day Syria comes out of that era, modern-day Iraq, etc., etc. What happened during what you may have heard of called the Sykes-Picot Agreement at the end of World War I is a carving up of this former empire. And one of the groups most affected in that land are an ethnic group of people called the Kurds.

Now, the Kurds are not a monolith. They are different tribes. They even have different languages that all constitute Kurdish dialects. But they do still, on some level, identify as Kurds altogether no matter their differences. At times, they divide out and say, "You’re that kind of Kurd, therefore you are my enemy." But when they have a common enemy, they all like to align as Kurds, "We are Kurds and we deserved a nation to ourselves, a nation state to ourselves at the end of this war, World War I." They were even promised. "Why didn’t we get a nation state?" And so, at the end of that, the Kurdish people were carved up into different countries. So, part of them now live in modern-day Turkey, part of them now live under a regime in modern-day Syria, part of them in modern-day Iraq, part of them in Iran.

“At the end of [World War I], the Kurdish people were carved up into different countries. So, part of them now live in modern-day Turkey, part of them now live under a regime in modern-day Syria, part of them in modern-day Iraq, part of them in Iran.” Jeremy Courtney

Jessica: And when you say divided up, they were already living in these regions but they were not given a state that they could all move to and create a true Kurdish nation? Or when you say divided up, they were literally sent to live in these different places?

 

The Kurds: A Century of Oppression

Jeremy: Great question. They form, more or less, a contiguous swath of land that could have … reasonably, it could have been carved out as a state called Kurdistan, for example. And so, Kurds, today, still long for and set their aspirations, separatist aspirations, in some cases, on the creation of a nation state that completely governs itself called Kurdistan. It would essentially, to reach its full realization it would require secession from Turkey, from Syria, from Iran, and from Iraq to form a new nation state which, of course, would essentially mean World War III for that to happen. And so, for the interim 100 years, Kurdish people, normal everyday civilians have lived as an extreme minority among what have often been very repressive states.

So, in almost … I think in all four cases, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Kurds have been denied rights on massive levels. They have been denied the right to name their children Kurdish names. They’ve been denied the right to speak the Kurdish language. They’ve been denied the right to even have identity as Kurds. In Turkey, they have been…their very existence has been denied. There are no Kurds in Turkey. We only have a group of people called Mountain Turks that has been part of their story. Can’t fly their nationalistic kind of flag. Their towns and cities have been overwritten with Arab, Turkish, or Persian names.

So, for 100 years, their story is that they are an extremely oppressed people. In multiple cases, they have experienced ethnic cleansing type campaigns against them. And official genocides against them have been formally recognized by world leaders. So, that’s part of the backstory that’s important to understand. They come to the table today with at least 100 years of repression, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and a sense of having been threatened and wiped out by all these countries who are implicated in these conflicts today.

“[Kurdish people] come to the table today with at least 100 years of repression, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and a sense of having been threatened and wiped out by all these countries who are implicated in these conflicts today.” Jeremy Courtney

 

The U.S.—Allies and Absence

So, in that mix over the last three or four decades, the United States has, at times, declared ourselves to be friends of the Kurds, to be allies, to side with the oppressed and the marginalized. And we have used the Kurds in Iraq and in Syria at least as our kinda boots on the ground forces to help accomplish common objectives that we shared together, which means Kurds have put their bodies on the line in numbers that are greater than American soldiers have. And they’ve been rewarded for that, to a degree, very significant investments in their infrastructure, their militaries, their intelligence apparatuses, etc.

So, three weeks ago, fast forward, and President Trump announces that he’s pulling a very, very small but important American ground force out of this northeastern Kurdish region, essentially surrendering Kurdish territory to Turkey. Turkey declared that Turkey was going to invade. Turkey declared ahead of time that they were going to clean out, that was their word, clean out this Kurdish area and make it "safe." Safe for whom is really the question that we need to be asking. And at every step along the way, the White House essentially repeated Turkish talking points and upheld a singularly Turkish ethnic, Turkish nationalist point of view and denied any sort of Kurdish viewpoint in the story even though the Kurds have been our friends and partners for so many years.

“Three weeks ago, fast forward, and President Trump announces that he’s pulling a very, very small but important American ground force out of this northeastern Kurdish region, essentially surrendering Kurdish territory to Turkey.” Jeremy Courtney

And the day after the White House made the announcement, we, Preemptive Love, basically issued a three-point warning that was essentially upheld and agreed to by every region watcher and expert who knew what was going to happen next. And within just a couple of days, every major point that we had had already come true. ISIS prisoners were set free as Kurds had to redeploy their resources to fight Turks. Turkish bombings and ethnic cleansing, genocidal-type tactics were being meted out against Kurdish Christian in new city villages in the region.

Jessica: In Syria?

Jeremy: All in Syria. So, Turkey wants to essentially cleanse a 300-mile swath of land and make it what they call a safe zone, what we would call a genocidally wiped-out, ethnic-cleansed zone or, in the very least, it would be a conflict zone in the interim for probably years to come and…

 

Power, Perspective, and the PKK

Jessica: So, is this purely ethnic on Turkey’s part? I mean, what is the motivation? Or they’re trying to actually get land in this area of the world, they wanna own this part of the world?

Jeremy: Yeah. So, part of the story that I skipped over, which determines who you see as the good guy and the bad guy, is that because Kurds have been a minority and because Kurds have had secessionist aspirations, particularly in Turkey … In the ’80s, a group emerged in Turkey called the PKK who, in order to secede from Turkey, embarked on all kinds of terroristic activities against the Turkish state. The PKK was a bonafide terrorist organization, a Kurdish terrorist organization who attacks civilians, who certainly attacked and bombed Turkish military outposts, and earned itself a horrible, feared reputation across Turkey for being a terrorist secessionist organization. The U.S. declared them terrorists. The EU declared them terrorists. And they sought safe haven in Syria. So, they fled across the border into Syria and used northeastern Syria as a kind of support zone or safe haven for their terroristic operations and then struck back into Turkey.

So, from the Turkish government perspective and really the Turkish population, they see no difference between Turkish Kurds, Syrian Kurds. They’re all terrorists in the eyes of many, many people. And as the Turkish government has moved more and more into a state-run, state-controlled media kind of environment over the last few years, it’s been very easy to push further and harder this story that essentially, there’s no such thing as a good Kurd and that all Kurds are implicated in terrorism by their support for secessionist aspirations, and their support for these "freedom fighters" who Turkey would designate all terrorists.

“The PKK was a bonafide terrorist organization, a Kurdish terrorist organization who attacks civilians. … So, from the Turkish government perspective and really the Turkish population, they see no difference. … They’re all terrorists in the eyes of many, many people.”  Jeremy Courtney

And so, any Kurd in this northeastern Syria region, I know this is a lot of words to be thrown, a lot of proper nouns to be thrown around that’s hard to keep up with, but essentially, Turkey is saying, "We have to invade this neighboring country and we have to wipe out this area because of terrorists. You may call it a civilian haven. You may call it indigenous land of Kurdish people but we just call it a terrorist support zone."

Jessica: Because of the PKK, they’re basically exploiting that organization to say all Kurds are like the PKK.

Jeremy: Exactly. It’s a lot.

Jessica: I’m tracking. I’m tracking.

Jeremy: Which is why it’s easier to just bury our heads. Honestly, I get it. It’s hard to keep up and…

Jessica: It is. It is.

 

Everyone’s Right—Love Anyway

Jeremy: And that’s why … I mean, I do think it’s important that we understand the details. And I do think it’s important that we not just believe the talking points that come out of presidential palaces across the world that singularly tell us what they want us to believe. But maybe above all, what I would want everyone to know is we do have agency in this. We can actually still be involved even amidst the complexity and show up on the frontlines to help people. There are ways to do programming in this space that bring healing. There are ways to bring reconciliation. There are ways to change the overarching narratives that lead us to war.

“What I would want everyone to know is we do have agency in this. We can actually still be involved even amidst the complexity and show up on the frontlines to help people. There are ways to do programming in this space that bring healing. There are ways to bring reconciliation. There are ways to change the overarching narratives that lead us to war.” Jeremy Courtney

Jessica: So, which brings us to your most recent book, Love Anyway: An Invitation Beyond a World That’s Scary as Hell. So, tell us some of those paths that appear. How can we exercise our agency in the complexity of this entire zone, honestly? I mean, because right now, we’re focused on this. But the new cycle is gonna have us focused on something else in the future.

Jeremy: Well, I think above all, it’s important that we not be roped into sort of categorical demonization of others, whether those others in your life are Muslims or Turks, or Kurds, or Arabs, or the LGBTQ community, or Democrats, or Republicans.

Jessica: But what’s hard is in the story you just told, already the story I’m telling myself is the Turks are the enemy. And frankly, you don’t know this about me. My grandma was a missionary in the early 1900s, took a boat to Armenia and actually saved entire villages from getting demolished during the Armenian Massacre.

Jeremy: Wow, amazing.

Jessica: She wrote even a book about it and flew the American Flag at this orphanage where everyone came and took refuge. And so, I know a little bit about that conflict. And so, I’m like, "Oh, OK. So, the Turks are painting this picture that all Kurds are terrorists and they’re using that to exploit their own need for gain or desire for gain in this region of the world." So, I’m not walking away thinking Turks are good. You know what I mean? So, how do I hold that tension? How do I not paint this good guy, bad guy story? That’s what I’m having a hard time with.

Jeremy: Yeah. That’s amazing. I really appreciate your honesty on this. And I think that’s what we need more of. We need more people telling the truth about how prone even the best of us, like you, are to falling into these traps. And I’m certainly not immune. Let me say it this way. The first half of the book could be summarized, and therefore, the first half of my life story could largely be summarized by this phrase, "Everyone is wrong except me." Until I hit 33 years old roughly, when the wheels came off my bus, I would have postured myself in many ways as though everyone was wrong. I was the right one politically. I was the right one in how to raise your kids. I was the right one on matters of faith. And everyone else was wrong.

Then, the wheels came off my bus. The whole thing fell apart for me. And as I started rebuilding my life and world view and frameworks, I would now describe … an operating modality for my life would be something more akin to everyone is right. And what I mean by that is, of course, if your story as a Turk is that you are the stewards of one of the most important regions of land in the history of the world, this bridge between Europe and Asia, this phenomenal Muslim empire that has kind of never quite gotten back to its glory days, that you were under attack by the outside forces of the world, that you have this restive terrorist population who won’t just get on board with the nationalistic project, if you have state media ramming it down your throat over and over and over again and can hardly get clean access to objective information that’s not propagandized by the powers that be, of course, you would come to these conclusions, of course, you would vote for the guys who’s going to save you.

If you’re the white power class in the United States who’s always had it a little bit easier than everyone else or maybe a lot easier than everyone else depending on where you are, and you feel like your world is falling apart, you feel like people are coming to take away what you understood to always be rightfully yours, you thought you worked hard for it and you don’t feel as though anything’s ever been handed to you easily, of course, you would feel like you’re under attack right now and that would lead you to certain votes and certain policies to protect the thing that you don’t want to lose, the thing that you don’t wanna give up.

If you’re a Kurd, and the way you’ve always heard the story is such as what I’ve laid out. But from a Kurdish perspective, of course, you would come to the conclusions that you’ve come to. So, I think I’m now at a place in my life where I can go, "Everyone’s right." I mean, if you look at the world from each person’s perspective individually or collectively, of course, we come to the conclusions that we come to. What is needed then, therefore, is to approach each other with some curiosity and some empathy to say, "Tell me more. Tell me more about how you came to see this world this way. And do you have any space in your life to take on the perspective of another? Do you have capacity to hear how it played out for someone else? And would you be willing to hold some doubt on your own view of the world and let someone else’s view of the world in a little bit?"

“I’m now at a place in my life where I can go, ‘Everyone’s right.’ I mean, if you look at the world from each person’s perspective individually or collectively, of course, we come to the conclusions that we come to. What is needed then, therefore, is to approach each other with some curiosity and some empathy.” Jeremy Courtney

And me moving into a place where I can see the rightness or at least the rationale for how someone arrived at their conclusion has made it easier for me to not fully vilify whole groups of people. I think that’s different from saying, "Everything is objectively right." It just is a way for me to say, "Everyone given their own path to this moment is exactly who we would expect them to be right now."

 

Love on the Frontlines

Jessica: So, tell me … you said the Preemptive Love Coalition started with a little girl that you met in a hotel lobby. Who are the people that you are holding in your hearts? I know for me, I wake up every day with a little girl that I met a few months ago in India, whose dad is determined to create a better future for her, and we’re now purchasing beautiful handmade paper from this small Muslim family which have been traditionally been at the bottom of the rung in India. Who are those people that you wake … who’s on your mind, who’s in your heart right now?

Jeremy: I mean, certainly, I’ve spent a lot of our time here talking about our minority friends in northeastern Syria who are being driven out of their indigenous ancestral homeland. So, I won’t say more on that, but they’re certainly in my heart in northeastern Syria. And we’re showing up on the frontlines daily to provide them with emergency food and medical care while our teams are getting shot at, and we’re pressing into those spaces. And in addition to them, I’ve been profoundly moved in the last year or so as we’ve been, for about two years, have been quietly working in Mexico. And I say quietly because we’re just trying to earn the right, I guess, to begin talking about it. Our MO has always been to show up and listen, and let people tell us who they are, let people tell us what their needs are rather than show up with an agenda. And so, we’ve been, quietly now, for a couple of years, I guess, pressing into immigration conversations, listening to Cubans and Hondurans, and others in Mexico tell us their stories. And I guess then, over the last couple of months, I’m starting to emerge from the silence and feel more comfortable talking about the people that we’re with and we’re loving and serving alongside every day.

And there’s a particular community that has risen to the top of my awareness and empathy pyramid, I guess. And that is an extremely beautiful but doubly vulnerable group of migrants who all belong to the LGBTQ community in Juarez, Mexico, led by an amazing transwoman named Gracia, and serving a community of migrants who have all fled their countries typically for reasons related to their identity and who they love and their sexuality, and how they see themselves and want to live in this world. They’ve been driven out of their neighborhoods. The gangs have often come and targeted them, beat them down one time and said, "Stop acting gay," come back, beat them down a second time, and said, "Stop acting gay. If you’re like this tomorrow when we show up, we’re gonna kill you." And so, then they set out on the run.

And story after story after story that we’ve heard from this community who come from a variety of countries in the region. And just being with them in this rundown, horrible, nasty abandoned building that they’ve been forced to live in and it’s just had such a profound impact on me, on our family, and on our whole team who’s loving them and frankly, being loved by them. They’ve been so hurt by others, driven out of their faith communities, driven out of their home, rejected by their fathers, even to show up in shelters in Juarez and initially to be served by shelters who then later on discovered that they’re a part of the LGBTQ community and then kicked them out of the shelter as well.

And so, they’ve been forced into the streets. They’ve been forced into all kinds of horrific things that none of us would want to go through in order to put food on the table for ourselves. And then to cope with the pain of sexual exploitation in the streets, they turn to drugs as a way of just numbing the pain and coping with some of that. And so, I love them so much and they love us back. And it’s been completely transformative for so many of us who are involved in their community. And when we walk through the doors of this slum, dump, abandoned building that they’re forced to live in, they say, "Welcome home," to us and it truly does feel like home. And it’s expanded my heart, my Grinch heart in so many ways. And they’re top of my list in many ways right now as we seek to build them a new shelter and provide them with the jobs that they need to stay in Mexico and thrive.

 

Making Impacts Personal

Jessica: Thank you for sharing that. I’d love to just end today’s conversation. And what I’m struck by is I think the story has to be made personal in some way to create a sustainable compassion. And perhaps, for me, that’s why I write my check to Preemptive Love. I haven’t been to the Middle East. The closest I think I’ve gotten is Morocco. I’ve always wanted to go to Turkey, Armenia, just to kind of retrace my great grandma’s footsteps. It was interesting, this morning, I have been a little rattled on this podcast interview because as I was coming into work today, I was about 20 feet away from a really horrific wreck. And it was on the highway, and a huge highway light just came crashing down. I missed it by about 20 feet. Thankfully, it didn’t hit the other cars. So, I immediately pulled over and called 911. And there were a couple of other cars that pulled over too. I live in a predominantly Hispanic part of town. And I suddenly had this moment where I’m looking around at the people who pulled over. A lot of them are Hispanic guys on their way to work in their trucks. And I’m thinking, "I have to be the one to call. They might be too afraid to call anyone right now. Because what if that then flags them, you know? And it just … I had that very personal moment of what is it like to be an immigrant right now in my town and that daily fear of being discovered or caught if all your paperwork isn’t in order.

And so, I’m wondering how … but I have this advantage, right? I live in this neighborhood. I’ve made it personal on purpose. I proximated myself to these people. And I haven’t yet proximated … I actually have a dear Syrian friend. And when this crisis broke down, I texted her. But I realized by her response that, "Oh, gosh. I don’t think she’s on my side. Are there sides? What are the sides? I’m gonna interview Jeremy and figure out what’s happening here." So, how do we make it personal for the mom who’s listening right now and lives in a…taking her kids to soccer practice and maybe a lot of the people in her neighborhood look just like her?

Jeremy: Like I said, I think it … we don’t have to know the facts of every conflict in order to start chipping away at the certainty of our world views and the certainty that there are clear cut good guys and bad guys in every situation, and that we know exactly who they are. Often, I think all we need to do is see our world view come crumbling down once. Because if we can see that we were wrong once, then we can understand that we might be wrong again. And so, I think the way we do that is we draw close in relationship to someone who’s different than us, someone whose worldview, whose ethnicity, whose faith, whose experience in their own skin in this country, whichever country really that we reside in or listening to this in, there are people who are targeted just because of where they live, what they look like, how they pray, how they love, how they walk it out in the world.

And if we can draw close to someone from that category, that group, and gain some empathy for them and see how we were wrong or misled, or how we misunderstood them, I think it becomes more of a practice then, and we can start to learn to ask the questions like you’ve just articulated here, that you learned it in one space and then you started applying it in another space, and then you started applying it in another space even without knowing all the details of those other people. It’s become more of a rhythm and a habit for you. And I found that to be true of myself as well.

“If we can draw close to someone [different than us] and gain some empathy for them and see how we were wrong or misled, or how we misunderstood them, I think it becomes more of a practice.” Jeremy Courtney

So, I like to focus on the first step. Who’s that first person from that other group, that other category of people that you could draw near to, that I need to draw near to? And can I approach them with a modicum of doubt that I have it all figured out what’s it like to be them, what it’s like to believe the way they do or live the way they live? And if I can hold that with humility and I can let them tell me their story and let them define themselves for me on their own terms, I think that sets us down a pathway where it becomes a habit and we apply that habit to other people as well.

Jessica: I love that. It’s simple, but you’re right, it has a domino effect because it cracks open that initial need to be right. And instead, it’s almost like … how can you get to know someone that is completely different from you and confirm the story that you are wrong? How can you look for those stories instead of we’re constantly trying to confirm our rightness, right?

Jeremy: Mm-hmm.

Jessica: Especially those of us that have small children. I even had my kids this week. It was like a warzone in my car this week in carpool, OK? That sounds really bad talking to someone who actually lives in a warzone. But it felt like a warzone in my car and on the way to school one day, and I just pulled over. And I said, "Kids, lift your arms up right now." And their eyes rolled. And I’m like, "Lift them up. I’m not taking you to school until your arms are lifted."

Jeremy: Surrender, I love that.

Jessica: And then, I said "I need you to surrender the need to be right. Surrender the need to be right, OK?" But I think we could all do that. How can we surrender the need to be right and engage in people that look differently than us? I can say, I can attest that it has a lasting, beautiful, beautiful effect. So, Jeremy, how can we come alongside you right now and support your work in bringing peace to the world?

 

Becoming a Peacemaker for PLC

Jeremy: A couple of things. The most immediate thing would be to support our indigenous friends in northeastern Syria who are being driven from their homes. We’re showing up with emergency food and medical care and shelter supplies right now. And so, you can do that at preemptivelove.org or find us on any of the social media platforms. We’re talking a lot about it right now. And whenever you’re hearing this podcast, even if it’s months from the date of recording, we will still be in these places doing these things because this is a long-ranging conflict that just got started with the U.S. pullout of troops. So, this is not gonna go away anytime soon.

So, those emergency supplies and jobs, long-term job-building, development, economic kind of work that we do would be a big part of what I would point us to. If you want to take a more long-range look at your own heart and how we can do this work of becoming peacemakers and you wanna join us in this community of peacemakers that we’re building, you don’t need to leave the organization or the faith tradition or the political party that you are a part of. We welcome everyone. In order to join this community that we’re building, I would just point you to loveanyway.com. I’ve got resources there including a 30-minute documentary-style film that has a surprise ending to it. And we’re touring that film around the U.S. right now. But we’re also seeing faith groups and political groups and corporations use the film in various settings to start conversations about how do we, in our own neighborhoods, in our own office space, how do we become people of peace? How do we do this stuff that you and I have been talking about here about opening ourselves up to others?

“If you want to take a more long-range look at your own heart and how we can do this work of becoming peacemakers and you wanna join us in this community of peacemakers that we’re building, you don’t need to leave the organization or the faith tradition or the political party that you are a part of. We welcome everyone.” Jeremy Courtney

So, that 30-minute documentary film has proven to be a really great tool. In an hour-long meeting, you can fully watch the film and still have a 30-minute discussion about how we can do better among our groups and with other groups who are beside us. The book, my new book, Love Anyway, is also available at loveanyway.com. And we made those tools for the world and we’re seeing people use them all over the world. And it’s been really meaningful to grow this community of peacemakers with you. So, loveanyway.com can get you to all those resources and give you a way even to contribute to the emergency response that we’re doing in Syria right now.

Jessica: Today’s conversation lends to such a clear call to action. Who can you go and get to know in your life that does not look like you? How can you intentionally befriend someone that is not from your background, that is not from your same socioeconomic status, whatever it might be? And how can you learn to be curious and surrender the need to be right? That’s what I learned on my conversation today with Jeremy.

I would love for you to go and rate this conversation, tell me what you learned from this conversation over on iTunes. That’s how more people discover the show. And thanks so much for listening by the way. It is an honor to know that I get to be in your earbuds, whether it’s on your way to work, during your workout, while you’re folding laundry … whatever it might be, I love knowing that I get to be with you.

Our wonderful music for today’s show is by my good friend Ellie Holcomb. Going Scared is produced by Eddie Kaufholz, and I’m Jessica Honegger. Until next time, let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.