I was at "Ladies Night" last night with a few girlfriends and as we were leaving the restaurant this cardboard box with a colorful, laminated sign caught my eye. It was sitting near the host station as you exit the restaurant so I leaned in for a closer look. The first thing I noticed seemed a bit comical. I chuckled at the thought that the crayons were going to go to "poor/street children". Like it didn't really matter which category as long as the kids were dirty and hungry. Sad thing to chuckle at, but I thought it was a bit dismissive to not really make a distinction of who the crayons were actually going to go to. The second thing I chuckled at was that the crayons were going to go to these non-descript poor children in "AFRICA AND INDIA"...Africa - the entire continent, all 47-56 countries depending on if you include the coastal island nations - and India - all 1.2 billion of the populace, or at least their children. Sure, it's a nice thought. Kids like to color all over this planet and so why not collect crayons here in America for kids in AFRICA and INDIA because they probably want that. But then I looked inside the box...
How pathetic. One and a quarter used and discarded crayons. Trash, basically. So with out intending to do so, the group who had the pure and good motives for helping kids on the other side of the globe inadvertently will communicate to these kids, "Here. You can have our trash."
Unfortunately, this is not as unusual or atypical as we'd like to think. It reminded me of a piece I wrote last year about my own experiences leading and participating in well-meaning yet ineffective and sometimes down-right offensive acts of service.
There are more resources and energy being given at this moment in history to fight diseases, oppression and poverty than at any other moment humans have lived on the earth. The heart of humanity seems to be growing in its generosity towards others at an exponential rate. Where previously we responded slowly to needs that we heard about around the world, now we seem to be barreling down the road of social justice at 100mph and feeling proud at the rate at which we’re now traveling. Unfortunately though, there are only a few voices within the local church that are starting to sit up and ask if we’re actually going in the right direction. This is the problem with traveling fast. The rate at which you travel can sometimes become the reason for why you’re traveling at all. The rush and the thrill of being a part of a collective movement that has momentum is intoxicating and can often times make your destination inconsequential. Sometimes we look like a group of 18 year olds out for a joy ride, on an open highway, at two o’clock in the morning, with no care about where we end up.
The truth is that we have famously collected enormous amounts of money to dig wells, send missionaries and meet the needs of the under resourced without fully understanding what it takes to bring about structural change. We know a lot about the fact that we’re supposed to do something but we know very little about the best way to do it. You can be a follower of Jesus and have a PHD in compassion and still have a first graders understanding of socio-economic issues that are rooted in generational crisis. When it comes to the cycles of poverty and injustice that we’ve been exposed to, our emotional response has rarely been an educated response. Our responsibility then is to see that our heart and our head move at the same pace and in the same direction.
Because of the quantity of issues facing the world, every organization now knows that whoever tells the best story wins. Causes have become as trendy to be associated with as a pair of designer jeans. Pop culture in America and Western European countries have become all about fair trade coffee, the freeing of sex-slaves and the rescuing of orphaned children because someone has told them a story that has moved them in some way. The response to these stories now frequent our Sunday morning church bulletins where we advertise canned good collections and endeavors to offer free shoes to shoeless children.
We raise thousands of dollars with slogans like, “Don’t let the kids of Malawi die of Malaria! Let’s give free mosquito nets to the whole village of Chilombo!” I have organized every drive known to man, including books, medical supplies, shoes, school supplies, used clothing, make-up, toiletries, computers, office supplies, Bibles…you name it, I’ve been in charge of collecting it! Then the teams I’ve led have descended upon impoverished neighborhoods and rural villages alike with a frenzy of kids and adults shrieking with delight over the plunder we were offering. Those moments offer amazing photo opportunities. Picture me with a beautiful Haitian child holding her brand new back pack [click!]
The quest for justice is such an attractive adventure but it is not easy. Over time our noble desires have produced relationships of dependency and other unintended consequences. This reminds me of the countless times I have attempted to do the right thing for the poor and have unintentionally done the wrong thing.
One of my teams I was responsible for in Sierra Leone saw that the villagers were in need of clean water. As anyone of us would do in a moment where we see that our resources could change the lives of people, they immediately stepped in and gave enough money for an old well to be fixed and re-opened. Once it was ready, a ceremony was held to dedicate the well and the villagers seemed overjoyed at the prospect of clean drinking water. What the team didn’t do was take the time to educate themselves about the long-time superstitions of this well. So instead the villagers stole the rope and bucket from the well and began using them as a washbasin and something to tie their fishing nets with. Who can draw clean water from a well without a rope or bucket? The idea was right and the motivation was pure. But the method only produced a waste of money and time. Our fallen nature craves quick results and immediate gratification and acting on those impulses proves empty if you follow the story to its ultimate conclusion.
If we hear of a single mom in our church who cannot afford clothes for her children then immediately the natural response is to want to jump in and provide clothes for that family. However, if I simply take a step back and look at the situation from a 30,000 foot perspective then I might start asking some new questions about the situation itself. What will happen next time when the children grow out of these clothes? How would I feel if a stranger bought my kids clothes? If you were that mother, wouldn’t you be embarrassed that you couldn’t afford to buy the clothes that your kids need. How would this mother explain to her kids the fact that mommy can’t take care of them as well as this stranger? Even if I’m grateful and I swallow my pride to accept that gift, my kids will still form a silent conclusion about my provisional abilities.
Could there possibly be another way to fix this problem? I think there is. But the solution is much more complicated than just buying new clothes for children in need.
This particular concept - one of trying to come to terms with my own motives for serving, learning a new paradigm of reciprocity and mutual submission in service and valuing the RESULTS of service as much as the actual experience of it - this has been on the priority dashboard of my life in the past 5 years. I have failed more than I have succeeded at finding solutions. But the question asking process itself has taken me down a road that I never expected. It has produced more heartbreak and therefore more long-suffering...truly...LONG...SUFFERING. But it is through this Valley of Learning a Different Way that I have walked and continue to walk. My own neediness has been laid bare for all to see and the playing field has been leveled between me [the "helper, leader, savior of the poor"] and them ["the least of these"]. It has been in this identification process that I have seen myself in a more brutal light. A light that shows the cracks in my theology and the disappointed look on the face of my soul when I realize I am just as needy and broken [if not more] than the people I long to serve.
I have made so many mistakes in my well-intended desires to help. I have been and continue to put that before God for Him to reconcile it all. But through this journey [and others that may be described in later blogs] I have come to a very freeing understanding that repentance is a gift. While it is gut-wrenching and ugly and often horribly embarrassing, it ALWAYS leads to freedom[which is a great place to start!]. As I repent of my own selfish motives for serving the poor or my ignorance of not knowing a healthy way to do it, I have found a deep connection with Holy Spirit as well as friends who are poor, sick, lonely and forgotten. This connection is giving room for us to be interdependently working towards true transformation in our individual lives, neighborhoods and communities.