Monday, September 23, 2013

The Divisiveness of Privilege

Privilege can be a terrible burden. I don’t know that I really understood this before the first day we were in the village in El Salvador. Some clothing had been sent with our mission team to share with the children of the community. Although our team had not intended to be involved with the distribution of the clothing, we ended up doing so.

I was tasked with the responsibility of giving shirts to the boys. I could not bear just to hand out shirts with the attitude of “You are needy. I have something to help you. Take what I offer, whether you want it or not.” So as each boy came up to receive a shirt, I first tried to find what would fit, then I asked if he liked it. Sometimes I would go through several shirts before finding one that suited, and sometimes I was unable to find one that made someone happy. As the stack of shirts decreased, the whole project grew more uncomfortable. I realized that the last children would not get to choose and that we might even run out before all the boys received a shirt.

It was an awful feeling. I felt acutely the burden of privilege. I feared that we had sacrificed relationship with these children for the sake of a material item. Instead of a relationship of mutual love and generosity, we were thrust into one of wealthy vs. needy.

Several years ago, on an earlier mission trip to the Dominican Republic, we were playing with children in the batays, which are migrant camps for the Haitians who come to the Dominican Republic to harvest sugar cane. Many of the children were wearing sweaters, long-sleeved winter sweaters. I asked the missionary who lived there why these children were wearing sweaters in such a hot climate. She responded that when clothing is collected in the States, people put in all kinds of clothes. It is boxed up and shipped to the Dominican Republic and distributed to the missionaries. The children basically get whatever comes out of the mission box, even if it’s the wrong kind of clothing for the climate. Hearing that, I was angry and ashamed.

Thoughtless giving, giving our “trash,” giving that destroys relationships, is not generosity. It’s insulting, heartless and demeaning. Instead of building another up, it belittles them. And as the giver, such giving hardens our hearts, separates us from each other, and fosters arrogance.

Recalling the act of clothing distribution to the children in the village in El Salvador is still painful, even now, three weeks afterward. As I hold that pain, I pray that it opens my heart to just how much privilege inhibits meaningful relationship with others. May I instead live in this way:

Don’t do anything for selfish purposes but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.
(Philippians 2:3-4)

I am grateful we had the rest of the week to build genuine relationships with the children. Their love, joy and generosity with each other and with us embodied the scripture above. I pray I may follow their example in my relationships with others.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Hopes & Dreams

While in El Salvador, we listened to Jenny, a beautiful fifteen year old girl, talk about what she wanted for her future. This is her final year in the nearby schools. To go to high school means leaving her community.

She wants to be a teacher. She wants to go to high school and actually has a sponsor family in the city that will support her and give her a place to live. But her mother and older brother don’t want her to leave the village. Her father, who shared her dream, died several years ago, and the family struggles without him.

When I think about the opportunities my own children and the children of most of my friends have had, it grieves me to think that Jenny may not get to fulfill her dream. There is a risk in leaving the community, but staying home means that Jenny’s future consists of picking corn and raising children. Neither of these is bad, but she is capable of and wants more for her life.

So how do we pray for Jenny? As a mother I know about wanting to protect your children. El Salvador is a tough country. Gangs are so powerful there that the government negotiates with them.

Whose hopes and dreams prevail? Jenny’s? Her mother’s? I cannot even begin to say the right thing to do. Jenny lives in such a different culture, in such a different place, and I have not right as an “Americano” to impose my thoughts.

Romans 8:26-28 comes to life for me as I struggle with how to respond in prayer in a way that is faithful to Jenny, her mother, and the village:  In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans. The one who searches hearts knows how the Spirit thinks, because he pleads for the saints, consistent with God’s will. We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.

I won’t know how Jenny’s story, her life story, turns out. But I know that my act of praying for her keeps my heart tender, and gives me the great privilege of bearing a small part of the burden of those with limited resources and opportunities. As long as my heart aches for Jenny, I know the Spirit is at work in me.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Sacrificial Gift

“I won’t offer up to the Lord my God . . . offerings that cost me nothing.”                                                                                                                                      2 Samuel 24:24b

For a gift to mean something to the recipient there must be a cost involved, whether the cost is measured in dollars or thought or time. If you’ve ever been the recipient of a thoughtful gift, you know that the impact of another’s thoughtfulness far outweighs the financial cost. On the other hand, an expensive gift that fails to consider the heart of the recipient or is offered only to fulfill an obligation, or worse yet, to impress folks other than the recipient, is not a sacrificial gift.

Last week, I was part of an eight person mission team that traveled to El Salvador with Living Water International to drill a well in a community without nearby access to clean water. The three women of our team, with the help of Liz Trigueros, our LWI translator, taught hygiene lessons to the women and children of the village so that once the well was complete, they would know the importance of clean water and how to keep the water clean once it was drawn from the well.

Spending four full days in the village, we developed relationships, especially with some of the children. But even before we had time to let these relationships grow and blossom, I experienced what for me was the most profound moment of the week. One day one, we met people from the village and walked from house to house to meet folks and to see how they lived. Carlos, the community leader, gave us a tour of the village and a crowd of children accompanied us. One girl, probably 12 years old, taught me about sacrificial giving.

Debora had two bracelets, one black and one green. Each consisted of several elastic strings of beads tied together with a matching ribbon. She untied the ribbons, divided the strands of beads and shared them with the four women in our group. I felt as though I had received the widow’s mite, for Debora gave us all she had to give.

While I have bracelets that involved a greater financial outlay, and ones with sentiment and memory attached to them, I have no costlier one than these four simple strands of green beads. I am grateful for and humbled by this sacrificial gift of love. As I look at it and remember Debora, I hear Jesus’ challenge to me, “Now go and do likewise.”

In the Common English Bible, the story about the poor widow reads like this:
Looking up, Jesus saw rich people throwing their gifts into the collection box for the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow throw in two small copper coins worth a penny. He said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than them all. All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had to live on.”    Luke 21:1-4

The rich put in their spare change, but the widow gave everything she had. I cannot look at the bracelet on my arm without feeling the conviction of my economic station. I, the rich, received from a poor girl, a truly sacrificial gift. But I also am challenged to follow her example of giving, to give generously and joyfully, to give without holding back, to give as I have received from Debora and from God.