First impressions are a funny thing. You only have a single moment to communicate to someone who you are from those first few minutes you meet. Sometimes these impressions are spot on, but most times they aren’t.
My first impression of Bella McKay could not have been more accurate.
It was the second week of my freshman year of college and the barrage of introductions and incessant small talk was starting to lose its luster. I think that’s why I found Bella’s boldness so refreshing.
We lived on the same floor so our paths had crossed once or twice during various intentional freshman bonding events. One night after orientation had died down, I found myself showing this 5’4” girl with a beaded dread hidden amidst her long blond hair into my newly decorated dorm. Bella strode in with a smile, looked around at my newly printed pictures of high-school friends nostalgically placed in frames, my neatly made bed covered in pillows, and the tapestry hanging on my wall depicting a map of the world.
Her eyes gaze over everything, her hand touches the map, and then her small frame quickly spins around towards me.
“I love your map. I’m going to come here a lot. We’re going to be really good friends,” she confidently declares in her raspy voice.
I let out a quick laugh at her directness, but I had a feeling she was right.
Bella Mckay was born and raised in Canada until her family moved to Detroit, Michigan when she was 12 years old. After going to college and meeting new friends from all over American, you realize just how much the context people grow up in shapes who they are and how they see the world. When Bella talks about Detroit, you can hear the sincerity in her voice.
“Detroit, that’s my home. That’s what I relate to. There’s so much character, so much resilience, so much grit. But, also, personality—the culture of Detroit and the people. Like nobody can deny the community that you feel when you are walking down many of those streets. Even despite its struggle with poverty and trying to redefine its identity. I don’t know, it’s hard. There are a lot of hardships for the people living in Detroit, but the city is beautiful and hopeful in its fight.”
While Detroit will always be home for Bella, she’s no stranger to the world. Bella went on her first mission’s trip at the age of 13 to Malawi, Africa. Growing up the daughter of a pastor in Canada, missions work was a must. When talking about her first trip abroad, Bella jokingly laughed, “It was kind of like a coming out of sorts. Rather than a debut ball, go over to Africa for 3 months and figure yourself out.”
This formative trip was only the first flicker of the passion that fueled Bella’s later travels.
At the end of the three months her feet may have left African soil, but her heart for the poverty she had witnessed for the first time remained rooted. Detroit provided Bella a unique way to process the new perspective she was bringing home, especially in light of her faith.
“[Detroit] helped me take in and process a lot of bad information. You’re just around bad things all the time. As Christians, we can’t say no to the darkness. You have to say yes to both light and darkness. Not necessarily in a way of letting it happen, but as a Christian you need to be able to step out into those really hard places. Because without doing that, what is our faith? It’s not just some really easy, joyful life where everything is easy, breezy and we don’t do anything tangible with it. You do something with it.”
Bella’s conviction for stepping out in faith only grew as she came to Wheaton College, a predominantly white, Christian liberal arts college several years later.
Dealing with Depravity
The summer after her freshman year, Bella traveled abroad to Amsterdam through a program called Youth Hostel Ministries. While she was there, Bella volunteered at a hostel during the day and explored the city at night. The Red Light District hummed near by as the sight of women standing in windows with men gawking at their exposed bodies became a frequent one.
Bella made it a habit to go talk to the women in the windows to hear their stories; for some of them, showing interest in their voices and not their bodies for the first time in years.
What started out as a night like any other quickly erupted as she watched an intoxicated pimp stumble into the room and begin beating the women she had been talking to moments before. Bella frantically rang the button for the police but no one came.
The fiery intensity in her eyes was evident as she recounted this moment to me, “Seeing it very close and also being a part of it [the violence], I mean it just changes you. When you experience it so personally and there’s nothing you can do to stop it, that is the most damn frustrating thing you can be apart of. It’s a kick in the gut to start working towards how you can stop it.”
It’s clear that the crippling feeling of helplessness in the midst of violence is one that Bella will never forget. While this experience would cause most people to shrink away in fear, for Bella, it proved to be another milestone in her journey towards fighting injustice.
One Step Forward
The next summer, Bella accepted an internship with Samaritan’s Purse to help with human trafficking in Cambodia. What started as a three month internship quickly extended to six months as the team in Cambodia asked her to stay on.
While most twenty-year old girls are spending the summer juggling jobs, exploring concerts, and soaking up the sun, Bella’s day looks a little different. When she’s not out “in the field,” meeting with victims of labor trafficking, she is hard at work in the Phnom Penh office. Her day starts off like any other college intern—fueling on coffee, avoiding emails, and scheduling meetings. But that’s where the similarities end.
Bella tried to explain an average work day across the crackly connection that Skype provides for friends separated by oceans, “I’ve been working on a community cognitive behavioral therapy program which focuses on sustained behavioral change. It’s like a therapy for victims that are coming back from labor trafficking to the villages. We’re seeing that unlike sex trafficking where there is a plethora of after-care services, because 73% of it is male victims of labor trafficking, not many organizations want to work with 30 year old men so there are barely any after care services for them.
“So they come back to the villages and they have all these problems with trauma, drug addictions, depression, and an inability to connect with their family. These challenges go uncared for by the individual and the people around them which just deepens the mental injury. So what my program is doing is we’re creating a therapy that their family will go through with the victim of trafficking. It helps the family understand what’s going on and it also helps them [the victim] understand a little more.”
Studies show that dealing with such brokenness day after day often results in a high burnout rate.
How do you continue to take one step forward in a world where injustice pushes three steps back?
Bella gently explains how she knows her experiences point to a greater story, “In Cambodia, I’ve learned a lot about freedom and how that relates to an attempt at looking at the world through a Gospel-centered lens. And so I think, just looking at the Bible and seeing how he liberates slaves from their chains. I mean that just takes on a whole new meaning when you actually see slaves being rescued from these huge mills or bricks towns. And I mean, that’s us. That’s what sin is. It’s so symbolic in every single way. No Christian could ever deny the symbolism in that when you’ve met hundreds of families being released with the brightest smiles on their faces.”
This joy is not only something Bella has witnessed, but faithfully lives out. We continue to take one step forward because we know who waits for us at the end.
A Bold Legacy
Bella’s eyes crinkled with laughter, lightening the mood as she does so naturally, “Well, that’s a loaded question.” After a few more seconds of silence she slowly answered. Amidst a list of things that spoke to joy and God’s glory she ended with, “I think I want to be remembered as someone who was incredibly convicted and did something about it. Somebody that had a convicted voice and continually stood up for what was right and wrong and didn’t fade in those standards.”
When you enter into different cultures and difficult situations like Bella does, it’s often hard to remain firm in your faith. Whether you’re fighting human trafficking across the world or simply living out your faith in every day activities, I think we all could afford to be a little more like my first impression of Bella McKay. Be bold, have joy, and always speak truth.