Monday, September 14, 2009

This May Sting a Bit

I don't Think He was Kidding

For a long time I have lamented how, for so many American Christians, life is mostly about creating a safe, comfortable life and happy home for family-- and that is the end of the matter. As if Christian scriptures extol the virtues of the America Dream, instead of the hundreds of references to pursuing justice, especially as it relates to the poor and oppressed. As if Micah really said “ …And what does the Lord require of you but to pursue comfort, to worship family, and to walk happily with your Stuff?” I sometimes wonder if those of us from the United States and Canada understand the extent, severity and nature of poverty. I think this must be the case, because if we examined how destructive, painful and flat-out wrong it is, more of us would be troubled, especially when we look out from our relatively cozy viewpoints of plenty. It cannot be that we see and understand how so many destitute humans live day to day—often as a result of our own decisions—and we simply disengage by choice from the misery of poverty. It cannot be that we do not care enough. I hope not.
I’m thinking that in the US, our nonchalance about poverty might be due to the perception in the US that “poor people don’t have it so bad.” After all, there is plenty of US census data out there that most of the 12% of US Americans classified as “poor” by the government are making it. Few are undernourished-- only 2.5% of poor children are stunted in weight and height, and only 7% of poor households report that they “sometimes” or “often” do not have enough food to eat. According to the US government, 73% of the nation’s poor own a car, 80% have air conditioning, 64% have a clothes washer, 89% a microwave, 97% a color TV—62% with cable or satellite, 25% have a big-screen TV-- 78% have a DVD or VCR, 89% have phones. So maybe being poor is not such an ordeal. Maybe this is the mindset of many middle to upper class American Christians.

However, in Ghana, and West Africa, and throughout the continent of Africa, poverty is a whole different animal, and I do not see how we can miss it. Poverty in Africa means destitution. It means gnawing hunger, stunted growth and starvation. It means thirst and foul water and disease. It means anger and frustration and humiliation and despair. Poverty in Africa destroys hope, creativity, and the will to continue, and it is everywhere. Millions of people in Africa have never known a single day without the shackles of poverty. Millions more will die as a direct result of the effects of poverty. 30,000 die every day in Africa because of their poverty. 6000 a day from HIV-AIDS. 3000 kids a day from malaria. A fifth of all African children will die before they reach their fifth birthday. With all the access we have to our world today, it possible so many Christians are unaware of these monstrous facts?

Even here, in rapidly developing Ghana, poverty boggles the senses. Ghana is often touted as a beacon of development and a model for the entire sub-Saharan continent, an “island of peace and stability.” Indeed it is well on its way to achieving the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty and hunger by 2015. But halving poverty in Ghana still means millions remain without enough food, water, adequate shelter, or access to health care or economic opportunity.
In Ghana, poverty is concentrated in the northern part of the country; some people talk about “two Ghanas:” the Ghana of the south, more wealthy, growing, developing, looking more and more technologically advanced with each passing year, and the Ghana of the north, lagging behind, waiting for better roads, waiting for investments, waiting for change, waiting.
But even the south suffers. Just a few miles away, in the heart of Accra, is an area known as Old Fadama. Old Fadama houses some 30-40,000 souls in conditions almost as bad as can be imagined. With no electricity, no water, no sanitation, the area has become an open sewer—literally a cesspool. Citizen of greater Accra have given Old Fadama another name—Sodom and Gomorrah, because with the poverty has also come drugs, violence, prostitution and a home base for criminals. The government has for years issued ultimatums and is currently threatening to evict the squatters and bulldoze the place—but where would the people go?

Amidst the squalor and poverty of Old Fadama, and of other places throughout Ghana and West Africa and the continent, it is impossible to escape the simple, staggering humanity of every single boy and girl, man and woman. As Christians, we are supposed to care about this. Many do. But surely, suffering of this magnitude, on this scale by fellow human beings ought to be a concern of all serious Christians. Surely we cannot be aware of this colossal injustice, inequity and pain and refuse to identify ourselves with it.

It scares me. Because if most Christians do know, if most of us have an awareness of the numbing suffering due to injustice and poverty in this world, and we choose to look the other way, what will Christ we say to us in the end? More frightening, if we avoid the poor, the hungry, the thirsty and instead choose lives focused primarily on serving ourselves and our loved ones—lives characterized by the pursuit of comfort, predictability and security—how can we possibly think of ourselves as serious Christians?

Or am I misreading the words of Jesus:

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

"Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

"Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Matthew 25:33-46

Isn't Jesus saying that He lives today in Old Fadama? Is He not saying that it is He who hungers there, He who drinks bad water, and He who has no toilet so He must relieve Himself where He can. Is He not telling us that He is sick and in a prison—and who sees Him? Who even is willing to look? Further, it seems that He is saying He expects us to look—and much more.

Across the ocean, the richest, most advantaged , most educated, most fed Christians in the history of the world live and worship. Many of us are indeed grateful for all God has given. I know some wonder how to give back. I know some want to do more. I also know it often ends there. We get distracted by the lives we have made for ourselves. I think about what we could do if we all looked beyond ourselves, our families and our comfortable distractions. If we determined to do something.
It might help to remind ourselves about what its like for so many of the world, and if we remembered Who really lives in places like Old Fadama, waiting.
We look away from Him at our peril.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for yoru post Bob. We would be back in Africa in an instant. Your post brought alot of meaning to us.

How is your support holding out? Many people are having trouble in that area. Take care, and write back if you can.


artwords said...

thanks bob! this is great.

it's important for us also to keep in mind that statistics have a way of misleading us-and i believe the stats you shared about americans in poverty is designed to help us not feel bad about our fellow man caught in poverty right here. yes, they are different animals, but they share similarities:
"It means anger and frustration and humiliation and despair" here too. it means the accompanying drugs and prostitution and criminal activity here too.
having lived in the ghetto in spain and a "ghetto lite" here in the u.s., i can see some differences:
1)the u.s. is, overall, a more dangerous place to live. this is more acute in areas of poverty.
2)a lot of american poverty has its roots in racism. this is not to say that there isn't racism, classism, etc in other parts of the world. but i would argue that racism based on a history of slavery is a more difficult beast to overcome than racism based on warring tribes or other abuses of power.

so... this to say, yes i agree the issues of poverty surrounding you in ghana Are more acute than here. you are right. but we Don't have to go to africa to see poverty bad enough that we as christians should be spurred on to action: we have put on our blinders right here in the u.s. globalization or not, it's disgusting how the religious have stopped being Christian.

The Reeds in the Wind said...


Be writing you soon. Thanks.


Couldn't agree with you more. In fact, I got some of those stats from an organization known for devaluing the plight of the American poor. People-- including certain Christians use this propaganda to bolster their indifference. But I think it also confuses Christians of good will. I'm glad you added your piece.

Thanks. By the way... who are you?


The Reeds in the Wind said...

PS By the way, I agree also that US racism introduces a whole other dynamic into the mix in the States. Although tribalism continues to actively oppress millions through Africa. We got a lot of work to do!

Hey, I found a great cartoon on racsim while researching this piece. How do I get it to you?

artwords said...

whoops sorry, didn't realize it wouldn't put my name as well. this is holly bechiri, from g.r.

Rebecca said...

Great Post!! I have tweeted this entry and linked via my blog as well.
Do you have an email list that we could be added to?

Anonymous said...

So what can be done to help? Throwing money at the problem hasn't helped.

The Reeds in the Wind said...


Your question sounds rhetorical, but if you mean it, there are many many people "helping." There are many success stories, many examples of how to help. Africa's rise may take many decades-- as did countries in the West, but it is rising. More organizations now understand how to walk alongside people and governments plagued by poverty. But you are correct, the solutions are not found in "throwing money at the problem." That's because the "problem" is not primarily economic. Do some homework of your own on what works, but I'll give you a hint: Its about establishing long-term relationships of authenticity and mutual transformation.

Thanks for giving it some time.


Anonymous said...

Bob - thx for the great comments. Just a couple observation/comments.

1. When reading your post, I couldn't help but think of the phrase 'can't boil and ocean' - because that is what it seems like when one looks at all the poverty as you described. I think you'll agree that it's overwhelming. Instead we try the little we can do admist all our own responsibilities we have with work and family. For many it's helping out at their local church or in their community, short term mission projects or donating to an organization like world vision.

2. The path on how to help isn't always easy to see for some of us - and it get complicated by the push to get established in ones career or to pay off schooling debt. As we have discussed with Renita earlier this year, placing a nurse overseas - easy. Placing some guy like myself with a business degree and sales background - not so obvious.

Thx & looking forward to your reply or next post.

Chuck M

The Reeds in the Wind said...

Hi Chuck,

Thanks for writing. I think it would take a long time to respond adequately to your thoughtful note. I'll say this: If I'm reading you correctly, it appears you are postulating that complex, overwhelming injustices ought to take a back seat to "all our own responsibilities." This implies that certain injustices are not already "our own" responsibility. Indeed, you seem to separate responsibilities into three categories-- the ones you claim "for yourself"-- school debt, career seeking. family, and in a second camp, responsibilities that are "less yours"-- like your church or community, and the third camp are apparently classified as "overwhelming-- too big to boil" responsibilities that maybe you ought to let somebody else tackle. I hope I'm accurately summarizing your premise, although I believe that while this is a common perspective among Christians, it is not the kind of life Jesus was talking about or the kind of life required if we are to transform or reclaim much beyond ourselves. And while I certainly agree with you that "the path on how to help is not always easy to see--" I would humbly state that one of the reasons the path is unclear is because we've cluttered it with the choices we have made, choices all about "our responsibilities," but choices that often have nothing to do with righteousness or justice.

I would not presume to speak into the way you live your life, but the little I know suggests you yourself are grappling with how to live more in keeping with the implications the gospel. That is great, because that spiritual grappling makes you more available to the voice of God. When that happens, you'll have to make choices between what you are convinced is a right path, and what you will have to abandon if you take it. When that day comes, it will be a defining moment in your life. It will be one of those "sheep or goat" moments. Maybe it has already come?

Chuck, the fact that you are struggling at all suugests you are looking at a right path. It took me about 15 years after I became a Christian at 21 to actually see where my path might be leading me, and to walk with more confidence on it. Keep struggling, but as you figure out the right next step-- take it. It leads to the Abundant Life.