The Vanishing at The Cecil Hotel: Lessons in Social Media

The real tragedy in The Vanishing at The Cecil Hotel on Netflix was how internet users became ruthless in their pursuit of “truth.” In this four-episode series, two characters emerge–Elisa Lam and the Cecil.

Elisa was a Canadian, a student, and a Tumblr blogger. She micro-blogged in the same way many of the early bloggers did when blogging was young—transparently, authentically. Her Tumblr was self-expression and connection. This is refreshing, considering that most blogs now are about selling you something. We are led through strange events, including the history of this Skid Row hotel.

Live interviews from a former manager, a former maintenance worker, police, the coroner, psychologists, Youtubers, bloggers, historians, and other “web sleuths” led us through the Cecil Hotel’s dark history and the strange journey of Elisa. The series seemed to present the story similarly to how the public heard the information as it was happening. This is good story-telling, giving us the right ambiance.

When the last episode plays out, and her body is found floating in the water tank, you are left feeling sad for the family who endured the media coverage as well as the victims of assumptions made by people online.

Morbid, a death metal musician, was mobbed online with hateful messages and death threats as people assumed by his music and his stay at the hotel that he killed Elisa. Hundreds of death threats and messages peppered his Youtube account. The Mexican FBI even briefly visited him at his home. This drove Morbid to an unsuccessful attempt at taking his life. To this day, Morbid said in the interview, he has trouble getting back into his art. He says no one apologized to him for the cyberbullying and the pain it caused.

From this, I felt we could learn some lessons from the Vanishing…

  • Hotel Cecil was located in Skid Row and housed people like Richard Ramirez. Elisa Lam was under-medicating as bipolar 1 and hallucinating, acting out, and being strange. No one thought to question her behavior or get help because it was the Hotel Cecil—a hotel where the unknown was an everyday occurrence.
  • Always Google map or Google earth a hotel before staying. Stay on Main, and Hotel Cecil shared the same elevator. It was not two different hotels, just two distinct hotel experiences to gain more business. It was still dangerous for a tourist.
  • The police do not share all their information, and the media is usually wrong or has an agenda.
  • Do no harm. Having a social media platform is a form of power.
  • Don’t obsess over bloggers or any other social media personality.
  • Think of the family of the one who vanished or died. I can’t even imagine how they felt watching all this unfold online and on television.
  • Use social media to connect and help each other.
  • Your words on social media will live long after your time here on earth is over. Make it count.

Some still believe that Elisa Lam’s accidental drowning was some kind of conspiracy. The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel very thoroughly debunked any conspiracy theories. She wanted to see the world, and instead, lost her life in Los Angeles. However, her words on Tumblr live on.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Holodomor: A Lesson in Communications

“Holodomor” is a Ukrainian word derived from “holod” (hunger) and “mor” (extermination). In 1932 and 1933, 3.5 million people are estimated to have died during Joseph Stalin’s intentional starvation. He called it a natural famine, as did other journalists and governments, especially the New York Times journalist and later Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Duranty.  Duranty was stationed in Moscow, as were other reporters. Duranty said of Ukraine, “There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from disease due to malnutrition… conditions are bad. But there is no famine.” He never retracted his statement. Governments going through the Great Depression wanted the story buried.

Duranty wasn’t alone in Moscow. Among the reporters stationed there was Gareth Jones. A movie was made recently of his life (Mr. Jones, 2019). I watched it with some trepidation. As a frequent reader of the Holocaust, I was prepared for horror. It was a good film. A few other journalists also wrote about the Holodomor. Gareth snuck into Ukraine to see what Stalin was doing to the Ukrainians. According to the movie, Gareth was arrested by Soviet soldiers and released but pressured to not speak a word of what he saw in his travels through the Ukrainian countryside.

Environment and Society wrote, “The Soviet government banned any discussions relating to the famine until the late 1980s, and ordered historians to depict the famine as an unavoidable natural disaster… some scholars have compared the devastating event to the Holocaust.”

While it was considered to retract Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize posthumously, it was never revoked. Gareth Jones’ journalism career took him to Mongolia to pursue another story of injustice to which his guide, thought to be with the Soviet Secret Police, helped get him shot and killed a day before his 30th birthday.

The New York Times has a statement about Walter Duranty on their website. “Duranty, one of the most famous correspondents of his day, won the prize for 13 articles written in 1931 analyzing the Soviet Union under Stalin. Times correspondents and others have since largely discredited his coverage.” They also said, “The Pulitzer board has twice declined to withdraw the award, most recently in November 2003, finding ‘no clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception’ in the 1931 reporting that won the prize, and The Times does not have the award in its possession.”

Without eye-witness testimony or proof like the photos that came out of the Holodomor, people who claimed the unpopular opinion that the starvation was not a grievous famine could have been labeled “conspiracy theorists.” Before Gareth and a “few” journalists published their pieces, no one knew what was happening in Ukraine.

There is a museum that reminds people it did happen. You can click here to read it.


Mr. Jones is not a movie for children.

Picture from the Museum page.

In The Wake of Kon Tiki

Many pioneers in different fields exist in the pages of history, like Thor Heyerdahl. He believed South America populated Polynesia and that the seas were an avenue of communication, not barriers as historians believed. Thor noticed similar plants such as the sweet potato, the movement of the trade winds and breakers in the Pacific Ocean, and learned about a demigod named Tiki. Tiki “… brought his ancestors to the island from the big country beyond the eastern horizon. (from here)Thor’s story encouraged me. As a pioneer in a new field, I related to so many aspects of his story.

I first heard about Kon Tiki on Netflix in the movie directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (2012). Thor had to raise the support to build the raft and fund the project to prove a theory his colleagues said was impossible.

“‘Your mother and father will be very grieved when they hear of your death,’ one skeptical diplomat told Heyerdahl when hearing of his plan. Promising ‘nothing but a free trip to Peru and the South Sea islands and back… ‘”

The movie portrays the journey to support as an emotional roller-coaster filled with rejection and hope. No one believed him. Thor didn’t even know how to swim or have any sailing experience. With the raft finished and ready to go, Thor stood on it, waving at the crowd with his five-man crew. The camera focused on his face. His eyes warily fell away from the cheering crowds on shore to the gap between his raft and the cement pier where the ocean lapped against the sides. It was as if to say, “Do I have confidence in my theory?”

It reminded me of a quote I found on Facebook by Dwight L. Moody,

“Moses spent forty years thinking he was a somebody; forty years learning he was nobody; and forty years discovering what God can do with a nobody.”

Thor got his raft funded. I am still trying to build this raft. I am approaching people, churches, and businesses, and asking them to join me in changing our approach to missions by connecting the churches with the missionary organization to reach the unreached, the unloved, and the unchurched through social media and face-to-face. I am a nobody, but God can do much with a nobody like me. The concern most church communicators have is in marketing their church online.

We need to change our thinking from marketing to making disciples. If a congregation is trained on social media by the church and the missionary organization, marketing will happen on its own. While we need to focus on algorithms and best practices on social media, our people can focus on making meaningful connections. Thor made it to his destination. His journey inspired others to new pioneering fields. The journey to his destination included much joy and discovery as well as danger and doubt. In the wake of Kon Tiki, I, too, struggle.

From the beginning, support raising hasn’t been traditional — everyone in technology shares in this struggle. Even an online friend mentioned how little of us digital workers there are in the world using this communication tool. Often, we create new apps or try to intentionally or unintentionally compete with other like products.

I am not after creating a new app or a discipleship product. People are accustomed to hanging out in different places on social media. Churches already have websites and a presence, but we’ve become passive on Sunday. As a church congregation, we expect the community and the world to walk into our building, instead of making an effort to meet them where they are online and in the face-to-face. That adds an extra wrinkle to my support raising.

The church is part of my vision; not the leadership. Leaders in our churches have enough to do and are often overwhelmed, but we need them to equip and guide us. Unreached people groups in North America are within a stone’s throw of a church member.

In the wake of Kon Tiki, I dream of uniting the church with the missionary organization to reach different people groups in their community and all over the world through social media, apps, and their preferred discipleship programs. Thor made it to Polynesia. I won’t see this dream finished. I am starting it so other generations behind me can take up the reins when I am gone.

The Frankenstein Chronicles: Who Wrote This!?

*Warning: Spoilers.Image by Etienne Marais from Pixabay *

Deep themes in The Frankenstein Chronicles surprised me. We arrived home from a weekend getaway and I flipped on Netflix. Nothing appealed to me, and though I am not a Frankenstein or Dracula fan, this show attracted me. By episode six, I knew I could binge watch all two seasons. Even my husband said, “Do not continue watching without me.” Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he added, “And no cheating.”

I will never live down Blacklist.

Such an intense show caused me angst. What if they disappoint me again and create a soap opera rather than a well-written show with characters that grow and story lines that keep me returning? What I discovered on a Google search caused me to lose interest in the show. A favorite character was leaving Blacklist to start his own series. Why should I invest my emotions in the Blacklist? But I digress.

The Frankenstein Chronicles is about John Marlott, an inspector, who is tasked by Sir Robert Peel to find out why children are going missing down at the river and why a body of several different children was stitched together, listing in the marshy shores of the River Thames. Historical characters such as Frankenstein’s original author, Mary Shelley and William Blake appear, with Mary Shelley being a key figure; apparently, Charles Dickens, too, as the reporter tucked away in the crowd, busy writing shorthand and chronicling the intertwining storylines of power, greed, and insanity. Why aren’t more Christian movies carrying themes like this?

Most times, Christian movies leave me empty, and I wish more Christian movies carried the questions and agony The Frankenstein Chronicles causes you to ponder. But this series makes me wonder…who are the writers? A brief Google search brought none of the satisfaction I sought. This is probably good though. The story remains undistracted by any agenda and follows John Marlott’s sense of justice. Even though the Christian theology is off, Marlott’s justice, love, and edgy behavior are countered by his partner’s idealistic, blundering and Christian heart. Both are Christian, but one is more emotional.

The scene between Flora, a girl rescued from a human trafficking situation, and Joseph Nightingale, Marlott’s partner, really embraces the agony of the pro-life and pro-choice struggle. Flora is pregnant and never revealed this to her captors or Marlott. Flora wants an abortion. Nightingale not only encourages her to view it as life but also offers a solution (much like many of our pro-life people with our pregnancy crisis centers). He would take her in and claim the child as his to protect her from shame. We discovered as we sunk deeper into each episode that the babies being aborted were used for their parts. Other children that were homeless on the river disappeared to become part of the Frankenstein experiment. Flora does get an abortion by the evil Hervey under the reasoning it would be a miserable life for both with Hervey’s underlying evil motivation, negating Nightingale’s offer of shelter.

By episode 7, I am wrapped up in Marlott’s struggle because in episode 7, Marlott has become Frankenstein. He no longer suffers Syphilis. He is alive with parts of his body belonging to others who were murdered, including aborted babies. The anguish he feels as a Christian fills the room. You understand his desire for suicide. He is not John Marlott anymore. He believed that cutting into his body meant he was separated from God forever (also due to not seeing his deceased wife and child in his dreams or afterlife after his “resurrection”). His priest friend urges him to turn back to God.

All I could think about was: Where is revenge justified in this? Does it all boil down to motive? Hervey appears to be killing priests. Hervey has powerful friends. People believe that Marlott is dead. People in power refuse to give value to the people in prison, living in poverty, and allow for abhorrent experiments to continue. John Marlott has the potential to be a hero.

Que episode 8. That’s where I am right now. Marlott said God has abandoned him. I felt his agony. I felt the darkness that threatened to make who he was disappear forever. He shouldn’t be alive, but he is alive because others unwillingly gave their lives for science and intellectualism to bloom. The episodes ask so many ethical and spiritual questions.

If only Marlott knew the power of the printing press and how reading Jesus’ Words might have given him the hope, forgiveness, and new life he wanted. Even as I think of this tonight, words from tonight’s online Bible Study float to my mind. Gaye Austin quoted Dr. Harris from Dallas Theological Seminary, “To bear fruit, you must stay attached to the vine.”

When was the last time you read the Bible?

Why Words Matter

“People are so angry.” My husband said.

A man was blocking the milk section at the grocery store. Another man wanted to get a gallon. Instead of waiting or gently asking the man blocking the milk to move back a little, the man needing the gallon of milk said very loudly and rudely, “EXCUSE ME!”

My husband met that angry man at the checkout station where the machine wasn’t working for him because he couldn’t wait. All I could think of as my husband shared his experience at the store with me was how words matter.

Memes, politics, words that joke about wishing people would die, etc aren’t powerless. It feeds a greater movement towards violence and hate. As a Digital Engagement and Disciple-Making Coordinator with WorldVenture, I wince when I see words and posts from people that divide rather than unite, and feel like our country is like our Arizona’s forests–a tinderbox due to drought ready to ignite with one careless spark. The drought, of course, is the lack of compassion, love, and self-control online combined with bible illiteracy.

Recently, I was watching Paul Apostle of Christ movie. The group in the Christian encampment wanted to take up their swords and storm the prison to free Luke and Paul. Paul said in the movie we must love, not retaliate. No matter how we feel politically, how we grieve for the state of our country on this fourth of July, we must remember that we are citizens of Heaven first and we are charged to love our enemies, our friends, and our neighbors. But, ultimately, words matter.

The angry man at the milk display, the impatience of the driver at the mall, and the fiery posts witnessed online are examples of the power of ideas and words. The world needs more Jesus and less anger. More importantly, we need to focus on exercising self-control online and have more conversations. Foster trust, not hate one post at a time. Learn to wait. Learn to stand in line. Learn to be helpful. Those are my thoughts today on this Fourth of July.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:34-35

3 Ways to Hinder Jihad

A Review of My Son, The Jihad, a Netflix Movie

Lessons we can learn from this movie:

  • When Thomas couldn’t keep a job, the extreme group gave him economic security.
  • When Thomas wanted to belong, but felt on the outside, the extreme group gave him a sense of belonging.
  • When Thomas’ girlfriend broke up with him, the extreme group gave him comfort.

His father and mother divorced, leaving Thomas broken on the inside. He got into trouble, couldn’t keep a job, and his mom, Sally, tried to reach him, and was kept at a distance. The movie described the home of Sally and Thomas as “non-religious.”

Sally mentioned God once in a while, but was she a believer? The movie was helpful in understanding why and how someone becomes radicalized. Then, a tweet on one of my other sites made me sad.

Seemingly focused only on the political angle of the refugee issue, someone’s tweet stripped the humanity away from the situation. While not related to the movie, it made me think of those three things that attracted Thomas to the terrorist group in the United Kingdom:

  • Economic Security.
  • A Sense of Belonging.
  • Comfort.

How we can fill those needs as a compassionate people? What would it look like to love a difficult person? Granted, we can only help so much, but what would radical prayer look like? What if we put our faith wholly in God and pray fervently for the lost? What if we grieved for the lost like a mother her son; even if that lost person was different than us?

So let’s go over these points again:

  • Economic Security.
    • Help them discover job skills.
      Help them with job applications.
    • Mentor them to keep a job.
    • Suggest volunteering to acquire job skills.
    • Teach them English so they can keep a job.
  • A Sense of Belonging.
    • Thomas’ father left him at a crucial time. A father figure is very important and does affect a child’s development.
    • The father figure in a person’s family affects their outlook on who God is.
    • Be understanding of someone’s background.
    • Learn to listen.
    • Be a mentor or someone else will.
    • Let that person into your inner circle.
    • Learn about their culture.
    • Learn how to build cultural bridges.
  • Comfort
    • Very simply, the gift of giving of your time.
    • Saying nothing and listening.
    • Withholding judgment sometimes.
    • Being gentle.

The refugee situation and radical Islam are complex situations, and like you, I am learning, too, what it means to minister to the unreached, the unloved, the peoples on the move, and the unchurched. We must really examine why someone like Thomas could become a terrorist and how refugees are a target for terror; sometimes, even a scapegoat.

Pray as I:

  • Learn more about “Peoples on the Move.” According to CNN, there will be 110,000 refugees by 2017.
  • Stay on top of the latest news on this.
  • Raise support so I can do this full time and reach people like Thomas who needs a friend.
  • Develop as a missionary.
  • Grow in the Word.

Serving is Messy #Voiceless

Voiceless: A Movie Review


“Voiceless was made to engage the church,” said producer, Stuart Migdon. He goes on to say, “We believe our film artfully presents the issue in a way that pro-life supporters can rally behind without alienating pro-choice viewers before they’ve had a chance to contemplate our story.” This description is spot-on.

A war veteran and his wife move to the inner city of Philadelphia. He’s the new outreach pastor, but the church he serves under is more concerned about filling seats than about serving the community. The opening scenes where Voiceless introduces the church shows a typical dying church—big, opulent, and filled with empty seats. A few parishioners fill a couple of pews and they look bored.

Notably, one of the biggest contributors to the church’s general fund runs several car washes and expects the church to be run his way because he’s the biggest (and only?) tither. As you’ll discover towards the end of the movie as the story builds, this brings the executive pastor into the crosshairs where he has to make a choice, too.  It’s truly a living-on-faith movie that encourages the church to serve Jesus in meaningful and risky ways.

What we consider politically as activism should be considered as serving the Lord. There were clumsy starts to the outreach pastor’s attempts to reach the women going into the “Family Planning” center, and the Senior Adult who lives next door to the church provides humorous and poignant touches throughout the build of the story. An unexpected twist between the outreach pastor and his wife suddenly makes his crusade personal.

The movie highlights the problems with underfunded pregnancy centers and church congregation members that are pro-life, but unwilling to give of themselves to the community. The conversation with the outreach pastor and the head of the abortion clinic (a.k.a. Family Planning Center) was also interesting as it expressed the pro-choice viewpoint. The challenge of the older neighbor having to take in a family convicts me.

The question I asked myself then, “How far am I willing to go out of my comfort zone to help another in a difficult situation?” How far am I willing to go to serve the Lord? Am I willing to make waves or do I really want my church programs, my comfortable seats, or am I willing to go beyond this? Taking biblical risks come with consequences as the outreach pastor and his wife soon learns.

As a church, are we willing to offend to stand for something even if that means losing half of your congregation? The questions this movie forces us to think about are these:

  1. How can we provide alternate medical help for those stuck in situations of unplanned pregnancies?
  2. How can we learn to listen to those who have had abortions and who are seeking abortions?
  3. How can we move the congregations to provide the means of escaping what abortion seekers think is the only way out of a horrible situation?

While only one minor problem exists with the movie, I choose to not discuss it in the blog. I’ll be happy to discuss it privately, but it’s more to do with storyline than the quality of the movie. I promise that there are no cheesy actors or actresses or pat answers in this movie. I gave it five stars.