Cartoon wisdom

This balloon is a symbol of the sorrows a teenage girl is letting go after being rescued from a life of sexual exploitation. She now lives at World Vision's trauma recovery center in Phnom Penh, and is starting to heal. (Sopheak Kong/WV/2009)

One of my eccentric hobbies is discovering theological insights from animated cartoons. A favorite is “Road Runner.” The dastardly coyote is always devising ever-more fantastic means to capture the elusive bird, but his wicked schemes invariably and hilariously backfire, causing maximum pain and humiliation for the coyote.

“Road Runner” reminds me of the story of Mordecai and Haman in the biblical book of Esther. You’ll remember that Haman goes to elaborate lengths to secure the demise of Mordecai. He is so sure that he is about to achieve this end that he constructs a gallows in preparation for Mordecai’s hanging. Alas, it goes horribly wrong, and it’s Haman who ends up swinging from the noose.

I picked up another cartoon insight last week from a former colleague. Sue Hanna used to work as a fundraiser for World Vision in New Zealand. She was good at her job and dedicated to the cause. But something happened that persuaded her to go deeper. She had what she calls her “Popeye” moment — an idea she got from pastor and author Bill Hybels.

I’m not too familiar with Popeye, but apparently, the inarticulate, weedy-looking sailor becomes transformed when somebody messes with the love of his life. Then, Popeye downs a can of spinach and is transformed into a titan, whereupon he saves Olive Oyl and — I gather — more or less goes on to save the rest of the world.

Which brings me to the serious bit. Sue’s “Popeye” moment had occurred on a visit to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, when she met 16-year-old Sokha. Sokha had been sold into a brothel at age 11 by her mother, where she then contracted AIDS. Eventually, she became too sick to work, and the brothel owner kicked her out. With few options, Sokha decided to return to her hometown and reconnect with her mother.

When she arrived, neighbors told Sokha that her mother had remarried and disappeared. She returned to the streets of Phnom Penh, where she was eventually found by World Vision and accepted into the organization’s trauma recovery center — a residential program for sexually abused girls. Sadly, she was only there for about a month before she had to be transferred to a nearby hospital because she was so sick.

Sue Hanna (left) and Sue Taylor at Sokha’s bedside. (Photo courtesy of Sue Hanna)

When Sue Hanna met her, Sokha was dying. Sue and another friend prayed for the 16-year-old to be released from pain and find peace.

Two days later, Sue was handed an envelope that had been left at the reception desk of her hotel. It contained a photograph of Sue and her friend at Sokha’s bedside (the picture shown here). On the back of the envelope was scrawled the message that Sokha had passed away the previous night. Their prayers had been answered.

Meeting Sokha changed Sue’s life. She resigned from her fundraising job and moved permanently to Phnom Penh, where she manages shelters for exploited girls and boys for Hagar International — an organization that partners closely with World Vision in Cambodia to rescue children from sexual slavery. Sue says she’s used the photograph to tell Sokha’s story more than a hundred times, and she still can’t repeat it without getting upset. I can vouch for that.

It struck me that we could all use a “Popeye” moment in our lives — a moment when the injustice of the world prompts us not to indifference and not to despair, but a moment that empowers us to rise up and do something about it.

This post originally appeared on the World Vision Magazine blog: Cartoon Wisdom.

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