Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Here's mud in your eye

In the DR Congo, Jim, Tedde, Chuck, Arloa and I went to visit a woman who was HIV positive. World Vision assists her by providing ARVs, nutritious food and other help. When we arrived, we were welcomed inside a mud-brick house that was about 8ft by 12 ft. There was no running water or electricity and so the door was left open for light. To accept her hospitality, all of us were given a seat and she stood by the door, which was the only space left. Bedding was located on the other side of a curtain hanging from a string at the end of the room. We were able to ask her questions about her condition and what life was like. It was terribly awkward because none of us wanted this woman to feel like she was on display for the visitors and, at the same time, most humans having trouble breaking the ice even when they speak the same language and the gap between their classes is not quite as glaring. But she was gracious and willing to answer our questions. Although quiet, she was not guarded, and we began to loosen up. Her 3-year-old daughter stood with her the whole time. The mother held the comb she had been using to tie the girl's hair in little tufts, a hairstyle that was unique to the DR Congo out of all the countries we visited. We asked if we could pray for her and she allowed us. Arloa, the pastor in the group, laid hands on her and we prayed. While we conversed through a translator, many of the local children gathered at the doorway to get a glimpse inside. When I went to take their pictures, they held up their own hands, as if taking my picture. Once I got outside afterwards, I saw that many of them had made little clay cameras. I asked the translator to have them show me their cameras again so I could take a picture.

Before we had left her house, though, I asked her why she thought the staff members of World Vision helped her.
World Vision is very clear in its policy statements about the fact that they do not proselytize and that they serve all people in need, without discrimination and without requiring that do anything religious to receive that aid. They believe that when they serve simply because they are commanded to by Jesus, that is enough. Often, receivers of aid get curious about why someone would help them and ask. Only then do they talk about Christ. I like that about World Vision and I wanted to see how the reality of this played out in the field. She responded, "World Vision is caring, loving and compassionate."

John 9:1-7 says:

Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, "Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?" Jesus said, "You're asking the wrong question. You're looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world's Light."

He said this and then spit in the dust, made a clay paste with the saliva, rubbed the paste on the blind man's eyes, and said, "Go, wash at the Pool of Siloam" (Siloam means "Sent"). The man went and washed—and saw.

I love the disciples because they are just like me: totally clueless most of the time. They just don't get it.

But they think they do.

They're so sure that they know what's going on that they don't ask open-ended questions. No simple, "Why is this man blind?" They are so shaped by their culture that they believe that the question is multiple-choice. Ha. Like God ever fit inside the boxes we create for him, even the ones that can be filled in with a number 2 pencil.

Christ ignores the two possibilities that the disciples hand him and presents a third option that has nothing to do with what they offered: This man is blind so that he may be healed and show the world the Glory of God.

I love the theories of community development. I read book after book about them, attend CCDA conferences, participate on community development blogs, and will talk at length with anyone that's willing about why the poor stay poor and what can be done to achieve equal opportunity for God's people. I'm starting grad school at the University of Chicago in the fall so that I can effect systemic change in this world, rather than simply applying band-aids. Plus, thinking about the cause-and-effect relationships of our world just feels good to me. Like scratching an itch or watching baseball or holding small babies. It's entertainment and joy, wrapped up into something (my head) that I carry around with me all the time anyway.

This makes me, at times, ask questions like the disciples: framed in such a way that Jesus will give me an answer that I expect, or at least, one that I can process. Throughout my trip in Africa, I was thinking about how the resources of the world got distributed so inequitibly and how I could be involved in the remedy. Basically, I was asking God whose sin was being punished by Africa's blindness, what societal sin caused the situation to arise that this woman, her husband and their 5 children should be suffering from AIDS.

I was also desperately trying to dispell my own bias that secretly believes that I am entitled to my wealth and privelige, that I somehow earned them and that this makes me better than people who have little.

In three of the four Gospels, Jesus asks the disciples, "Do you have any idea how difficult it is for people who 'have it all' to enter God's kingdom?" He goes on to say that it is easier for a camel to fit through an eye of a needle than for people of privelige and wealth to enter God's kingdom.

This is a troubling verse. I know several good men that have spent the last 20 years trying to figure out how it applies to them. But I have recently begun reading several biblical scholars who believe that "God's kingdom" or "the Kingdom of Heaven" refers to our mortal life here on earth in addition to the afterlife. They believe that it describes the parts of this world and our lives that align with God's original plan for us. This means that the Kingdom of Heaven is anywhere people are in real community with one another, loving and taking care of each other, even in the midst of conflict that inevitably arises. People who have wealth and privelege usually don't have true community. I certainly fit that description, having spent the last several years of my life looking for it after not finding it in the drive-through suburban life I had been living. But time and time again, when I engage with "poor" people, they have what I lack. For their survival, they must know and cooperate with all of the people that live in their neighborhood, even those they don't particularly like. It is Christ's commandment to love our neighbors lived out of necessity.

So, when she said, "World Vision is caring, loving and compassionate," I realized that I was asking the wrong questions. Although it is important to figure out what causes poverty in order work towards systemic change, what is more important is being caring, loving and compassionate. Africa is blind so that when it is healed, the glory of God will be known. I am a child of wealth and privelige not because I am better than those who aren't but because when I am healed of my isolation and finally release myself into true community, the Kingdom of Heaven will grow larger, having brought one more person into its sphere of influence.

I thanked her for giving me the opportunity to be caring, loving and compassionate. Without her suffering and the suffering of her beautiful children, I would simply be dry dirt on the side of the road. Instead, through my association with World Vision, she offered me the chance to be mixed with the spit of Jesus and become mud in her eye.

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