Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thankful for the Life Given

Today we are sharing our American holiday with a mixed group. We will have American friends. We will have African friends. We will have American friends that are a little African and African friends that are a little American. As I thought about what I would say, how I would explain a holiday that was centered around a turkey and people coming together to eat I came up with this. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as we will be enjoying a day of cooking, visiting, and be thankful for the mixing of blessings that God has put into our lives.

Thanksgiving Day Meditation: 

Thanksgiving is a holiday were we celebrate life. The original thanksgiving started because when Europeans first landed in what is now American, they landed in a boat, sure that they were in a place divinely given to them by God and yet just as unsure how to use this divine gift to make enough food to eat. The first year they were there they almost starved to death because of a lack of food. Luckily the native people had the graciousness and hospitality to help them out and bring them food. The native people held life to be sacred and were interested in preserving the lives of these visitors. Some things don't change. Yesterday people came and helped us of European descent kill and prepare the turkey because we sometimes still have no idea what we were doing. :).

The most important thing about today though, is that it is a holiday that celebrates life. It celebrates the life preserved by those first kind acts, and it is a time to be thankful for the life that we are given now and to be thankful for the things that preserve that life today. I am thankful for the life of the turkey that is allowing me today, to eat, to celebrate, and to be with family and friends. The turkey is a part of creation, given to us by God, that allows us to continue our lives. That same God gave his own son, that we may have life of a different kind. Not mere existence, to suffering from one moment to the next, but a full life. A life of joy, peace, and mercy as we take our God given responsibility to preserve the lives of those around us in friendship and support.

I want to end with saying that in thanks I want to give my life as well. As Romans 12:1 reminds us, we are to be living sacrifices, to show our thanks through our work, our effort, our love of others, and our belief that life is sacred. We are here, not to give in to the death that is in the world, but to remain thankful for the life we have been given and be responsible for the preserving of life and dignity of those around us.

I am thankful for each one of you here. And I pray that you also have many things to be thankful for.

What are you thankful for?
And how are you going to show your thanks?

Why It is Easier to Share Our Toys Than It Is to Help Build the Sand Castle

*The first part is easier to read because it is hard hitting and we can get righteously stirred up. Development is often not fun, it is boring, and it takes a lot of time (something most of us don’t like). But if we pinpoint an issue of poverty and don't take the time to learn more or do more to fix it, we will never move forward.

It may not be a good metaphor, but I think many of us are good at sharing our toys. We are good at saying, “I have ten cars to play with. You have no cars to play with. I will play with 8 and you can have 2.” Many of us are good at this, and there are times when someone simply needs a car to play with. However, we are not as good at helping someone else to build a sand castle. Building a sand castle takes time. In order to build a sand castle with someone else we have to work together, we have to share our tools, we have to take the time to get to know someone else and how they want the sand castle to look, and we have to trust them not to knock it down at we used OUR time and OUR resources to build it. Many of us are not very good at doing this. We often approach development like we do a child trying to build a sand castle. Many of us are willing to share a little shovel if we have several of our own. Some of us are willing to give suggestions, but we usually wonder away before the sand castle is finished. A few of us will be very well meaning, stay and help, and decide that we know a better way to build the sand castle, and before long the sand castle starts to look like our vision of a sand castle instead of the child’s. I have done this before with my five year old son. Now this is not a great way to build up his confidence, our relationship, or his ability to build his own sand castle, but it is fairly harmless. However, when we start talking about development it is no longer harmless.

There are three (for this article) types of help we provide to people in tough situations.

Charity - Is giving because you have and they don't without a care for trying to reverse the situation in which you have and they don't. Giving money to a homeless person as you drive on by.

Relief work - What you do when someone has tried, but their circumstances are too overwhelming and they need help to continue meeting their basic needs. A great example is assisting with the recovery after natural disasters.

Development - The slow work of moving people out of poverty to a place where they can rely  on their own efforts and understanding to continue to improve their living conditions. Teaching someone a skill and job interview skills so that they become employable.

I think we often approach poverty reduction with a charity mind set. We are not looking at what will really help their situation we are looking at what will make us feel better. When we try to help so that we feel better, we are not targeted on solutions we are targeted on problems, because the problems are what make us feel bad. When we target problems instead of solutions we many times reward people for suffering instead of rewarding their effort. We are saying, because I feel for you (different from with you) I will help until I feel better. This is means that I stop helping, not when a solution has been reached or when you can do for yourself, but when I start feeling better.

A step up from this is relief work. Relief work has its own time and place. It is needed when the situation has either overwhelmed or eliminated the ability of someone to help themselves. Tornadoes, tsunamis, and earthquakes are all good examples. Sometimes people just need help. However, relief work is never meant to be long term. When it stretches out for years, and especially decades it is often times no longer relief work. We are now helping to maintain those in poverty. We want to help because of their suffering, because of their overwhelming situation, but we are not helping them increase their own abilities. We are not helping them move the necessary markers of development closer we are just helping them survive their suffering. We are not helping them rise above it. It shows how we feel like their suffering is important, but their ability to work is not. We would rather provide charity than development and reward their continued suffering instead of their work.

So how do we go from one to the other? How do we get from valuing suffering to valuing work and contributions to the larger community?

Making bricks for the church building
We do have to first recognize their pain. However, recognizing pain is different from rewarding it. In one of the communities we work with you could hear the pain of the grandparents as they talked about their often orphaned grandchildren. It was good to recognize that what we were hearing was pain. It is good to know that their grandchildren are important to these people. However, giving them all some money would have only prolonged certain situations. Providing them with a flour mill and training them in business is a much better idea (and incidentally is what we are trying to do). That is the difference between relief and development, short term fixes and long term success.

I know that if you have reached here then you must either love the people writing this or are truly interested because this is not an interesting treatment of poverty. I have not given a lot of tear jerking stories (though they are there in my mind, heart, and prayers). What I really want though is for us to start thinking about this, and start rewarding efforts and providing hope. The suffering of people in our lives is great, but giving to make myself feel better doesn’t help. I have been here long enough to know that. What needs to be done is to help THEM build what THEY need for THEIR future. Let us reward their efforts, hopes, and dreams by moving the goals posts one step closer.

Clearing land for the future church site
As you are gearing up for Christmas giving this is an important thing to think about. As we start to write checks for our favorite charities in honor of our loved ones, let us put a little more thought into it. Heifer International with their training programs and the requirement to pass off-spring onto another family is a great example. Here in the Mara District we try to do the same thing as we work on training and development with everything that we do. In the new year we will start a revolving fund for churches to receive money from in order to start development projects that will allow them to pay the funds back later. We are working with congregations to build churches, but each church is making bricks, collecting stones, digging foundations in order to contribute to their own church building. We will never ask for you to contribute to the picture of suffering we see here, but we will welcome your help in building the hope that we see during this Christmas season or any other time of the year.

Hope, not because of OUR efforts to stop people’s suffering, but hope because of THEIR efforts and THEIR faith to improve THEIR own lives and communities as part of God’s light in the world.  

Monday, November 19, 2012

Why Is Their Suffering Worth so Much OR Why the Cute Kid with the Distended Stomach Should Not Be Shown on TV

*The examples in this post are overly simplified for the sake of understanding and illustration. If you are interested in learning more I have several good books I can recommend or you can just apply to a Ph.D. program in developing economics ;). 

When I first came to Tanzania so many things were new that it was hard to pay attention to everything. There were so many new experiences, different foods (poop soup with interesting smell), several new languages, and variously colored money that it could at times be overwhelming. The one thing that was not surprising was the poverty. I mean come on, its African right, everyone is poor!?! I have seen the pictures and TV commercials. I watched Slum Dog Millionaire (which I hope most people rightly point out was in India and not Africa). So when someone would come up and beg for something to eat, I didn't think anything about their poverty. When people would beg me to buy something from them so that they would be able to buy some food I was glad that they were working instead of just begging. It was not until later that I realized it was still a form of begging. It was not until later that I realized I was watching one of the worst affects that poverty, long-term, generational poverty, can have on people. It was not until later, after some relationships, experiences, and some good books, that I realized what I was seeing. I was seeing a group of people who have accepted the message that their suffering is worth more than their work. I was seeing a group of people who have learned to see that their darkest, weakest moments are greater assets than their strength, light, and ability. How many years does that kind of message take to set in? I don’t know, but it has been going on for long enough here, that is for sure. What does it take for a group of proud, tough people like the warrior Kuria tribe to turn into beggars? When did they learn that their suffering was worth more than their work? There is probably a deeper history here than I have the education and experience to express, but let me give you two snap-shots and maybe you will come to the same understanding that I have (maybe not).  

Snap-shot #1:
A company starts up a business in a developing country. They produce a product that the American public wants and they produce it cheaply so that the American public will buy it and the company can still make a product. A good business model so far, right? However, they are able to produce it cheaply because they pay low wages to workers in bad conditions. So the American consumer receives a cheap product, but has to pay taxes because the American government is sending billions of dollars a year to this same developing country for development because the people of that country are suffering. This scenario doesn’t even get into the money that goes on under the table in order to reach an agreement that assures a low tax bracket for the international company making a cheap product by way of cheap resources and labor. Before you start crying foul on the big company, the only reason they do this is because we continue to choose cheap products over more expensive products that people are paid decent money to make.

"So how does this result in me rewarding suffering over hard effort?" you ask. Good question, your answer is found in snap-shot #2.

Snap-shot #2:

This bring this onto a more personal level. Have you ever shopped at Walmart in order to save money? (see example above) Have you also bought a pair of TOMS so that another person would have a pair of shoes? If you have done both of these things you have said to someone through your purchases that their work, the actual labor they put into making a product for me to use is not worth me paying an increased price, say $40 for a pair of shoes instead of $20. However, your suffering is worth me paying $58 (just checked the website) for a pair of shoes so that your child can be given a pair of shoes that you can’t afford on your own. Your work is not worth enough for me to pay a fair price so that you can buy your own shoes and a pair of socks to go with them, but your suffering is worth enough for me to give you a pair of long as you don't work for them.

Over and over again we are telling people that their suffering is worth more than their work, and they are listening. I know they are listening because I can walk around town and am hit up to buy things, not because of the value of the product, but because of the suffering of the person. They had to have learned this from somewhere. They now think that good advertising means advertising their need, instead of advertising their skills or products (the result of their work). I know this because the hard workers I know here in Tanzania work 6-7 days a week trying to provide for their families and instead of seeing Africa as a place of investment, we more often see it as a place of charity. I hear in it the common cries of children asking for money, as if every foreigner is rich and every African is poor.

The way that we approach helping the poor says so much about what we value in the poor, and what we find in their lives that is worthy of our response. Most often it is not their work and effort, but their suffering. We unintentionally reward suffering and elevate the despair of a people without many options instead of purposefully rewarding hard work and elevating hope. 

SOO what is next? I am hoping you are asking that question. I hope that you don't think I am being self-righteous or am just out trying to make everyone feel bad. There is a point to this and there is a solution. 

Please read the follow up to this article which will be published in a few days. It goes from this picture of current circumstances and tries to offer a few options for where we can go from here in rewarding work and promoting hope. Join us in this work, or at least what we are trying to do.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Not Perfect, But Peaceful

I wrote this early this morning before the day started. Therefore the blog is also not perfect, but hopefully will be a reminder of peace today.

I am one of those people that is motivated by ideas. I can find inspiration in statistics and vision statements and strategic plans, because they show need, give direction, and take us someplace. I appreciate the movements that exist to renew creation through environmental protection, reduce what is essentially slave labor by raising awareness and expecting people to actually act on their conscience, and that promote parenting as one of the highest callings we will ever have. I like to read books, learn facts, and know not just acceptable ways of doing things, but the very best way. All of that said, life is just too dang much most of the time. I would love to be the perfect environmentalist, but I have no trash system so the plastic diapers get burned outside with everything else. I would love to say no child should have to work, but I see 10 year olds working hard and can’t help but encourage them knowing they are supporting themselves or their families. And parenting…who ever knew that you can NEVER be the perfect parent. There are times when the Ipad is the best babysitter (only babysitter) that we have, and infant Tylenol will calm almost any issue (though mostly teething). 

If there is anything I have learned, and that I am still trying to accept, is that life is not a movie, there are no perfect endings…or beginnings…and let’s not get started on the middle. Liz and I are trying, and I feel like we are doing a pretty good job at living life as we have been called to live it, but it is messy. We get tired from helping other people and sometimes take it out on our kids. We get worn out by Derrick’s constant need for reassurance that we will be home when he gets out of school and sometimes take it out on someone who comes by needing help because their family kicked them out, or wants to kick them out, or they wish their family would kick them out (have seriously had all of those happen). We don’t have a great financial plan (don’t tell our parents) and will probably never be able to save up enough to send our kids to whatever college they want, in part because we are paying school fees, medicine, etc. for other people’s children.
Life is messy. I will never be able to do everything I want to do, as well as I want to do it, when I want to do it (usually right now). We are learning the hard way that to give you must take it from somewhere else. To give time for ministry you have to take it from your family. To give time to your family you have to take it from others who need you. To help the environment takes work and sometimes we are just too tired. To be hospitable, caring, loving, helpful, etc. you often have to take some measure of security, comfort, and independence away from yourself and be willing to be uncomfortable, overwhelmed, uncertain. Nothing ever goes according to plan, assuming that I ever knew what the plan was in the first place. 

We can only pray that when life is done, we can look back and see how the small, daily pieces of life that we put together can come to create a beautiful puzzle. There are times when I just want have my life together, but the more beautiful times, the more peaceful times come when I am truly able to let go.