Since my return from a visit with the Dominican Republic's poorest communities I’ve been asked "How was your trip?" more times than I can remember.
The knee jerk response is to answer like my kids may when I inquire about the school day. It would be easy to toss out one of many cliche exclamatory adjectives. However, a simple answer of "good", “great”, “moving” or even “life-changing” does not do justice either to the sincerity of the question or to the depth of the experience.
Forgive me in advance for being long-winded or offensive. The intention of my reply is not merely to answer. I’d prefer to help you step into portions of the experience itself.
Before I step on the airplane I find myself guarded against a potential pitfall that comes when you hold hands with a depth of financial poverty never before encountered.
I've talked to many who have been on similar journeys and a common response is something like...
"Wow! I can't believe how I take for granted everything that I have. I now feel a new gratitude for (fill in the blank with first world luxuries like clean water, indoor plumbing, electricity, three square meals a day, etc)."
I will always celebrate any experience that stirs within us a deeper gratitude for the simple. However, if we don't go deeper than this then I'm convinced our gratitude is nothing but disguised forms of blindness and greed.
You see, if our gratitude is ultimately inspired by the things that we have then we are indirectly suggesting that those with less should be less grateful and that those with next to nothing should have next to no gratitude.
We spend 90 minutes of our trip visiting a group of Haitian refugees who escaped Haiti so that they could live in a Dominican dump. My use of the word dump in not at all figurative. As we leave a garbage truck enters the area to do what garbage trucks do at a dump. Never again will I be able to say, "one man's trash is another man's treasure" without having my stomach turn. The people race to the dump truck as if it's Santa's sleigh. Why? It is so so that they can get their hands on the best garbage before anyone else does. Be assured that these people really have next to nothing.
Despite this very real plight, these Haitians (and the many others we meet who have little more than the Dump residents) are familiar with gratitude. What in the world do they have to be thankful for? When we answer this question (and only when we answer this question) do we discover for ourselves the source of authentic gratitude.
We are blind if we believe that gratitude has its source in that which we possess.
My next sentence is sure to offend but please know that it does so without judgment. I simply ask for you to hear me out completely before disregarding the message
We are greedy if we possess more than we need without exhibiting a willingness to find a way to use SOME of our surplus to assist others who demonstrate, with action, a desire for opportunity to rise up out of the circumstances with which they are faced.
The preceding sentence is written every so intentionally and deserves some unpacking.
First, please know that I have far more than I need. This is true of any middle class American and, quite frankly, is also true of many in the United States that find themselves with less than a middle class income. One friend of mine with whom I do business says it this way: "If we are born in the United States we've already hit the jackpot."
While I am filthy rich compared to most of the world, I am surprised that my trip does not make me feel at all guilty about the ease of my life. Neither do I feel mere gratitude because I happen to possess more than those who occupy two thirds of our world. I do, on the other hand, sense a responsibility. "To whom much is given, much is required."
I am grateful that I sense responsibility rather than guilt. What would a sense of guilt really achieve anyway? I imagine that guilt would be inspired to give just enough to assuage my selfish feelings of remorse. Responsibility, on the other hand, is a much higher calling. It is a calling that requires effort and sacrifice both from the giver and from the recipient.
While in the Dominican Republic, before having the "pleasure" of visiting the Dump, it is impressed upon me that I should partner with a Dominican based organization to identify one person, one family or one community that shows both the fervor and the wherewithal to rise up out of poverty's cruelty in order to lay hold of a better, more sustainable life.
Our team talks a lot about the importance of giving "hand ups" rather than "hand outs." The beneficiary selected will have to be willing to sweat. I have zero interest in giving one person a fish and neither do I want to teach one person to fish. I want someone who will learn to fish and then teach others also.
I partner with an organization called "Cups of Cold Water. (http://www.cupsofcoldwater.com/) and I tell my partners that we will do whatever it takes. Are we willing to adopt or support the adoption of another? Yes! Are we willing to pay for a college education or trade school? Yes! Do we need to receive credit for what we give? Absolutely not! The nationality, gender and age of the recipient is entirely unimportant. Please, I say, just wisely identify the recipient and we will invest as necessary. Recently the team on the ground has talked to us about an 18 year old single mother named Michelle who, years ago, believing it was her best economic opportunity (as far too many young Dominican girls do) began earning pesos as a child prostitute.
My wife Jennie and I have recently been reading the Old Testament book of Ruth. It is known as a multifaceted love story. Ruth shows great love toward her mother in law Naomi. Boaz shows great love toward a foreigner named Ruth. However, the love story that stands out for me is the passionate concern that Israel's God shows for the poor, the orphan and the widow.
Without going into a great deal of historical minutia, I want to share a key element of this story. It is a story that, when combined with my trip to the Dominican Republic, changes my life.
Israel's law, handed down from God to Moses, make many concessions to insure that the widow, the orphan and the poor receive special consideration.
One of the more puzzling requirements of Israel's law makes the following allowances for a childless widow and her deceased husband.
The nearest male relative is called upon to marry and have children with the widow. The first male child will carry on the deceased father's name and will be granted a full double portion inheritance that is due to the first male child of any family.
I know that this seems entirely outdated on so many levels. Still, it is important that we see the spirit and the heart that establishes the law.
A man called upon to carry out this obligation would often refuse to do so because it would minimize the inheritance of his own children and of his own name (Ruth 4:6).
Agreeing to carry out this obligation is to exhibit identical concern for one's own children and for other people's children.
Before leaving for the Dominican Republic I asked myself the following question:
“How can I, for the remaining years of my life, offer my very best to the world?”
Today I answer this question with three words (without knowing entirely all that my answer may entail).
My answer: Other people's children.
Anyone care to join me?