Thursday, December 29, 2016

It's Easier to Care for the Poor When They are Invisible

Let's see a show of hands:  How many of you bought gifts for the less fortunate this year?  A Christmas shoebox?  Or for your church's Christmas outreach?  Or rescue mission or homeless shelter?  Or Angel Tree?

I'm guessing there's a lot of hands up out there.  Americans are generous at Christmas.  It's wonderful.  Good for you, America.  I'm guessing there's not a lot of other countries that meet your level of generosity this time of year.

There's just one thing that concerns me:  All these gifts were purchased for invisible people.  People without faces, without names.  Sometimes, charity gift programs do include actual names.  You know, like when you get a little gift tag:  Buy a gift for Tom, age 12.  He would like a football.  That's a little more personal, but Tom is still invisible.  The gift buyer will never meet Tom.

These programs can be great, and they have their place.  But it does cause a huge disconnect between the giver and the recipient, or to be more blunt, the "rich" and the "poor."  The thing is, I think we "givers" kind of like it that way.  It makes "helping the poor" as neat and easy as swiping a credit card.  Present bought.  Present wrapped.  Poor person happy.  Rich person happy.  Duty done.

We want to help the poor, but we also want it to be easy.  Doing more, like say, building relationships and getting involved in the messy complications of other people's lives--well, that's a whole lot harder.  But we must force ourselves to answer the question:  What really is going to make a difference?  Giving a gift to a faceless person we will never meet, or getting down and dirty with the problems in another person's life?

What we might not realize is that the invisible recipients of our generous Christmas gifts are actually not quite as invisible as we might think.  They might be cleaning our houses or our workplaces, or mowing our lawns.  They might be doing our nails or delivering our newspapers.  Maybe they are serving us weekly at our local diner.  Maybe we're paying for them to care for our ailing grandmother.  Of course, not everyone who works these jobs is in the "poor" category.  But I would guess that if we look hard enough, all of us, every day, have contact with people who are.

Often, they might look different from us or speak a different language, which makes the barrier between us and them greater than just economics. Often, we content ourselves with knowing that we are paying them, so that should be enough.  

But is it really?

Some people think that the way to eradicate poverty is for the government to do more.  Some people think that the solution is found in generosity to charitable organizations.  I think the solution is a whole lot more complicated than that, but we are heading in the right direction if we prioritize relationships as the key.

Building a relationship goes far beyond a paycheck.  It means talking.  Spending time together.  Being a part of each other's lives.  Learning from each other.  And then, once that relationship is built, looking for ways to help raise that person's standard of living.  Not just by generosity.  But by mentoring.  Helping.  Tutoring.  Investing.

If it sounds hard, let me assure you that in reality it's even harder.  The more I've tried to help people in poverty, the more complicated my life becomes.  Many, many times, I just get a pit in my stomach and want it all to go away.  Often, I don't know what to do.  Often, I wonder if I am making things worse.  But then a friend tells me that her 9-year-old daughter ranked 6 in her class of 200 students, and it's all worth it.  I get a glimpse of their better life coming.  We rejoice together.  And in the end, the miracle of real relationships is that my life becomes so much richer.  Often, it is I who have something to learn.

The righteous care about justice for the poor.  (Prov. 29:7)

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. (Matt. 25)

If every established American family chose to invest deeply in the life of one immigrant, refugee, or financially struggling family, then we wouldn't need more government programs, or even more private charities. Think of the very real difference we could make in America. 

And then, come Christmas time, instead of buying presents for nameless, faceless strangers, we could have the joy of spoiling a family who we know and love and has enriched our lives.

Now that would be a great resolution for 2017.

Every year, as a Christmas present for my house cleaner, we take her family to the local water park.  It's a highlight of the year for her kids, and an incredible joy to us.  

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

My Crazy, Wonderful, Beautiful Family

Medina Family 2016

Grace:  Almost 11
Josiah:  9
Lily:  7
Johnny:  5
(Gil: 39, Amy: 40, Bibi & Babu: 66....but who's counting?)

(Just so you know, this photoshoot was interrupted by someone getting disciplined, and the best smiles happened because somebody tooted.  Just keepin' it real.)  

Friday, December 23, 2016

Snakes Simply Don't Belong in My Children's Bed

Snake stories have always been the territory of the "real" African missionaries; you know, the ones who live in mud huts in the middle of nowhere.  City dwellers like us rarely see them, unless you are my friend Alyssa who found 16 in her house.

In all our years in Dar es Salaam, we've only had one snake in our house, and that was about 10 years ago in our dining room.  We've seen a few others in our yard, but that's about it.

So yesterday, when Lily came out of her room to tell us there was a snake in her bed, we thought she was seeing things.  For one thing, she was quite calm (which is very un-Lily-ish....this is a child who has been known to scream bloody murder over a frog).  And she had been sent to take a nap (which she despises), so we thought this was a convenient diversion.  But she insisted it was a snake.  So Gil and my dad (who is visiting) went to investigate, and lo and behold, there was a green 3-foot snake hanging from the slats of the bunk bed.  Johnny was already sleeping on the top bunk, but we rapidly decided that his nap was now over.

Thankfully, the snake stayed put while my husband and my dad grabbed a box and various instruments of death.  My dad knocked it into the box and covered it, and we all trailed behind him as it was carried outside of our gate.  I was ready with the camera, but once the box was opened, it made a quick exit, and started slithering away into the bushes.  Gil hacked at it, cutting off about 8 inches of its tail, so we are assuming it has now perished.  Fitting punishment for having the audacity to get into my children's bed.

We tried to play it cool the rest of the day so as not to alarm the children, though Lily dissolved into tears at bedtime and refused to get into bed.  I tried to reason with her, but considering that I'm not sure I would want to get into my bed if I had looked up and seen a snake, I couldn't blame her.  She slept on our floor last night.

After the kids went to bed, we started Googling snakes, and great discussion ensued over whether the snake was greenish-yellow or greenish-blue and whether it was skinny or really skinny.  All of this is very important, because our visitor was either a harmless tree snake:

Or a green mamba, one of the most venomous and deadly snakes in East Africa.  

If missionary life were a video game, we would have just gone up a level.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

When We Don't Want to Think About Aleppo, Especially at Christmas

Last night I went to sleep thinking about Aleppo, and the absurdity of the fact that I was thinking about Aleppo while sleeping in my comfortable bed in my air conditioned room with a full stomach, and healthy children in the room next door.  Yet somehow I am living on the same planet and I share the same sun as those described here:

"As residents began to flee, bombing continued and a steady rain began to fall. Parents holding small children by the hand picked their way over dead bodies in the streets to escape. One image showed a man with his wife ducking from shelling, holding a child in one arm and an IV bag in another, the drip still attached to the blanket-wrapped infant. Some photos showed adults holding babies wrapped in blood-soaked blankets or pushing the injured in carts as they made their way out of bombed apartment buildings. Early Wednesday morning, AFP reporter Karam al-Masri watched as a mother with a child in her arms stooped in freezing rain, desperate to scoop some spilled powdered baby formula from the mud at her feet."

What do we do with that?  The thought that a mother is frantically picking out baby formula from the mud at the same time I am picking out presents for my children just seems ridiculous.  

Yet this is life, isn't it?  All eyes are on Aleppo right now--it's about time--but what about Congo and South Sudan and North Korea and Afghanistan?  Apparently if the suffering didn't have a start date and there's no end date in sight, we just get too tired to pay attention.

The bombs drop while we laugh at Buddy the Elf and the babies cry from hunger while we decorate sugar cookies and the father cradles his maimed son while "Joy to the World" plays in the shopping mall.

So we send in some money to make the guilt go away, but what is enough?  Is it still okay to buy the American Girl doll for my daughter while the other mother picks out formula from the mud?  

The fantasy of Christmas is alluring.  We want to believe in magic, in goodness, in peace.  We want to forget the blood-soaked blankets, the stepping over dead bodies because it's too hard to enjoy the pumpkin-spiced latte that way.  Happiness feels guilty in the face of terror.

There's got to be some sort of inbetween.  We shouldn't have to ignore suffering in order to be happy.  We shouldn't need to be afraid to turn on the news because it might spoil the Christmas spirit.  

Sometimes, though, we sugarcoat our perception of Christmas.  We want the magic, the silver bells, the glittery lights, the sweet baby on the silent night.  But is the story as idyllic as we imagine?  Yes, angels sang when Jesus was born, but we forget that babies and toddlers were also ruthlessly massacred.  Joseph and Mary were hunted refugees who ran for their lives in the middle of the night.  Somehow that part doesn't make it into our Christmas pageants.  A second-grader with a sword, jabbing doll babies to death doesn't have the same allure as rosy-cheeked shepherd-children with bath towels on their heads.  

Mixing in the stories of terror and war and horror shouldn't be incompatible with Christmas.  In fact, if we really want to understand the significance of the Incarnation--God becoming flesh--then perhaps it might do us good to meditate a little bit more on that war and terror that went along with it.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.

For every boot on of the tramping warrior in battle tumult

and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.

The same passage that speaks of the great light also mentions blood and burning and darkness.  There's a reason why Jesus was called the Prince of Peace.

So is it possible to experience the joy of Christmas and the heaviness of the world at the same time?  Of course.  That's the whole point, actually.  John Piper calls it brokenhearted joy.  We are not those who flit about with our head in pink clouds, but we also do not descend into despair.  We weep with Aleppo and South Sudan and our suffering neighbor, but we simultaneously rejoice in the Son,
Our Mighty God, 
Our Prince of Peace.  

Lily, 2014

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

To be virtuous is a luxury of the rich.  

I just made that up.  I'm well aware that it's certainly not a true statement of everyone, as many rich people are evil and many poor people are virtuous.  But it is much, much easier for a rich person to choose to be virtuous than it is for a poor person.

And if you don't believe me, then you've probably never been poor.

To be poor in Annawadi, or in any Mumbai slum, was to be guilty of one thing or another.  Abdul sometimes bought pieces of metal that scavengers had stolen.  He ran a business, such as it was, without a license.  Simply living in Annawadi was illegal, since the airport authority wanted squatters like himself off its land. 

I read Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo about a month ago.  I had planned to include it in my semi-annual list of books to recommend, and then I realized that I just can't stop thinking about it.  Even a month later.  This is one of those books that changes you.  You can't be the same after reading it.

A few weeks ago, Abdul had seen a boy's hand cut clean off when he was putting plastic into one of the shredders.  The boy's eyes had filled with tears but he hadn't screamed.  Instead he'd stood there with his blood-spurting stump, his ability to earn a living ended, and started apologizing to the owner of the plant.

If you've read this blog for any length of time, you know that poverty is always on my mind.  I am surrounded by it.  I struggle daily with what to do about it.  So as I read this book, even though it is about a slum in India, I felt like it was describing the lives of those on the other side of my fence.

True, a few residents trapped rats and frogs and fried them for dinner.  A few ate the scrub grass at the sewage lake's edge.  And these individuals, miserable souls, thereby made an inestimable contribution to their neighbors.  They gave those slumdwellers who didn't fry rats and eat weeds, like Abdul, a felt sense of their upward mobility.

This book has inestimable worth in helping the average (rich) westerner to understand the vast complexity of poverty.  How it's not just a matter of providing seed money or sending a Christmas shoebox or paying for a good education that is going to get someone out of poverty.  That ethnicity and religion and politics and most importantly, worldview, have far deeper ramifications than we realize.

In this way [Sunil] learned that policemen sometimes advised the road boys about nearby warehouses and construction sites where they might steal building materials.  The cops then took a share of the proceeds.

Probably what was most valuable to me in this story was the importance of virtue in poverty alleviation.  And how the poor can't really, truly be helped until integrity is valued in a society.  And how we can't expect poor people to be virtuous until the rich are virtuous as well--starting with the government, the business owners, and the elite.

'Out of stock today' was the nurses' official explanation.  Plundered and resold out of supply cabinets was an unofficial one.  What patients needed, families had to buy on the street and bring in.

I don't think that my fellow Americans really understand the level of corruption that exists in the developing world, and how much it contributes to poverty.  I certainly didn't get it until I had lived outside of America for many years.  And I think that this is one of the main reasons why westerners' poverty-alleviating efforts often hurt more than they help.

In newspaper interviews, Gaikwad spoke of his search for unschooled children, and his hope of giving them the sort of education that would lift them out of poverty.  His less public ambition was to divert federal money to himself.

The biggest revelation of this story comes in the epilogue.  It's the sort of thing that I thought should have been included in the prologue, because finding out the truth of how this book came to be written made me want to start over from the beginning and read it again.  But since the author obviously wanted it left for the end, you'll just have to trust me when I say that this book is incredibly powerful--and it will change your life.

The crucial things were luck and the ability to sustain two convictions: that what you were doing wasn't all that wrong, in the scheme of things, and that you weren't all that likely to get caught.  
'Of course it's corrupt,' Asha told the new secretary of the nonprofit.  'But is it my corruption?  How can anyone say I am doing the wrong...when the big people say that it's right?'

The subtitle of this book is Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.  To be honest, I didn't see much hope in this book.  It is deeply disturbing and terribly depressing and really not redemptive.  But it's necessary, because poverty is real.  Far more real and far more prevalent than those of us with manicured lawns want to admit. And if we want to be a generation of rich people who really do help the poor, then that must start by really understanding poverty.

Among the poor, there was no doubt that instability fostered ingenuity, but over time the lack of a link between effort and result could become debilitating.  'We try so many things,' as one Annawadi girl put it, 'but the world doesn't move in our favor.'

Though the gospel was nowhere to be found in this story, I kept thinking about the difference it could make.  In promoting the value of human life.  In valuing justice and truth.  In offering forgiveness.  In providing hope.  And it reinforced to me the necessity of the gospel not just taking root in individual's lives, but the importance of it transforming whole societies by becoming a worldview of influence.

'Always I was thinking how to try to make my life nicer, more okay, and nothing got better,' Sunil said.  'So now I'm going to try to do it the other way.  No thinking how to make anything better, just stopping my mind, then who knows?  Maybe then something good could happen.'

Those of us whose lives are nicer, are better, we don't often realize how powerful we really are.  Or how responsible.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

From 10 to 105 (This Is Why We Are Here)

Freddy was one of Reach Tanzania's students in 2014 and 2015.  Recently, he stopped by our training center and shared this story:

In 2015, we started having family sessions of prayers in the evening. So we used to praise and worship God, and some of our neighbors started hearing how we were praising God and worshiping Him.  So they started joining us for prayers and worshiping the Lord.  And slowly I started telling them about the Good News about Jesus.  And [I used] some methods I have learned about here at Reach Tanzania.  For example, from the evangelism [class].  They accepted Christ and they offered their lives to Jesus.  So I taught them those methods that I have learned here at Reach Tanzania and they started applying them to the places that they were going.  And they won a lot of souls.  So from a number of 10 people now we have grown to a number of 105, to this time.  In a year.  So I thank God for this school.  

This is why we are here.  This is why we keep staying.  

Gil and some of our students recently made this 4 minute video to recruit new students for next year.  Freddy tells his story in it, and you'll hear from some others as well.  (If you are reading in a feed, you will need to click through to the post.)

And if you don't have time for that one, this one is only 1 minute, and I promise it will make your day.  This is what our students do...all the time...spontaneously....just because they love Jesus and love to sing.  

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Don't Ask Me About My Christmas Traditions

My first Christmas on African soil was when I had just turned six years old.  We had arrived in Liberia only three weeks earlier, and my mom was in the throes of major culture shock.  My parents had shipped over a few presents, but nothing else for Christmas.  My mom managed to find a two-foot plastic tree at a store, and decorated it with tiny candy canes wrapped in cellophane.  After just a few days, the candy canes turned into puddles inside their wrappers.  My mom says it was the most depressing Christmas she’s ever had. 
Our first Liberian Christmas: My brother and I with our punching balloons, and my sad Mama.
I remember that Christmas, but the funny thing is, I thought it was great.  I remember being concerned how Santa would get into our house without a chimney, but my parents assured me they would leave the door unlocked.  We had a tree, we were together, and it was Christmas.  I was happy.
Fast forward 25 years to when I started raising my own TCKs in tropical Africa.  I was a young mother around the time when social media was really taking off, and I felt suffocated under the expectations of creating a magical Christmas for my children, complete with handmade crafts and meaningful traditions. Not only that, but I was quite literally suffocating in a southern hemisphere tropical climate.  There weren’t going to be any pine trees or snuggling up in pajamas while going out to see Christmas lights.  In fact, the only festivity to be found in our city was a five-foot high, mechanical, singing Santa in our grocery store that terrified my two-year-old and made her run away screaming.

We can tell ourselves that “Jesus is the reason for the season”—and even believe it—but we all know that we have expectations for Christmas to be more than that.  The traditions, the parties, the “magic,” even the cold weather, all are wrapped up in what we dream Christmas is “supposed” to be.

Ever wonder what Christmas is like for those of us living in a different country?  Click here to read the rest of this post over at A Life Overseas.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

I Am Forty

I was born on December 1st, 1976, while my Dad was stationed in snowy New Jersey at an army base.  So today, I am forty years old.

It does sound strange.  It does sound old.  Because anyone who is not yet forty doesn't actually believe they ever will be.  But I must admit, I really am not dreading being forty.

My favorite piece of furniture in my house is my hard-wood dining table, which we had custom made ten years ago (back when custom-made furniture was the only kind of furniture you could find in Dar es Salaam).  At the time, I thought it was huge because it seated eight.  Now I wish it was bigger.  But I love that table.

When Josiah was a baby, sitting in his high chair, he could reach the table.  Once when I was out of sight, he took his metal spoon and banged as hard as he could on that table, leaving a bunch of dents and scratches.

Oh, how I mourned over those dents and scratches on my beautiful perfect table.

But then, time passed, as it always does.  And now I look across the table at my big nine-year-old Josiah, and think about how quickly time did pass.  And I look at those dents and scratches, which have darkened into the wood, and I am so thankful for that precious memory of my sweet baby.  And I think my table has become even more beautiful because of it.

Why do we fear age so much?  Why do we cover up our wrinkles and sags, as if they were something to be ashamed of...instead of beautiful marks of sweet memories, hard work, and wisdom?

I have absolutely no desire to return to younger days.  I think back to my teens and twenties, to all that self-conscientious and confusion, to my introversion which prevented me from having a normal conversation with most people my own age.  I think about early marriage, early child-rearing, and I have no desire to go back to the multitude of mistakes, the unnecessary anxiety, the selfishness that had to be rooted out.  Of course, my life is (and never will be) perfect, but I certainly have a whole lot more peace and confidence than I ever did when I was young.

Tanzania, like many other non-western countries, celebrates this much better than my own culture.  In Tanzania, age is to be honored and cherished.  There's a special greeting in Swahili that you are expected to use with anyone who is significantly older than you, and calling someone mzee (old person) is a way to show respect, even if the person isn't actually very old.

Why on earth does our culture idolize youth?  If age brings on more wisdom and more understanding, then it should be honored.  And like my hard-wood table, if I bear the marks of growing older, then so be it.  Bring on the years.

Since I'm feeling nostalgic today, I'm posting pictures of milestones in my life.  It's fun to think that many of you reading this today knew me at these various stages.  I wish there was a way to honor all of you who have impacted my life.

On ELWA Beach, Liberia

Baptized at age 12 in Liberia

Ethiopia, on the night before I left for boarding school in 9th grade

Back in California, my favorite part of high school was theater.  This is Ouiser Boudreaux in "Steel Magnolias."  Will I look like this when I am 60?

High school graduation (1994) with my best friend Anne 

Paul and I had this picture taken as a gift(!) for our parents.  This is not a milestone picture, but I had to include it because it's so awesome.
The paint.  The dog.  

Graduation from The Master's College, 1998

My first class

Faith Blast Kids' Club taught me so much about cross-cultural ministry, loving people, and leadership.  Gil and I co-led it for four years.  We barely knew each other when we started, but eventually it led to.....

Our wedding on October 7, 2000

Making our home in Tanzania (and no, we actually don't live anywhere near elephants, but it's just such a cool picture.)

My first class at Haven of Peace Academy

Bringing home Baby #1

Baby #2



The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, 
along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  
(I Timothy 1:14)