Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Out of Africa (with apologies to Isak Dinesen)

One of the challenges that I have had since returning from Africa almost 5 years ago is adapting to the fact that it is really hard to believe that Africa and America can co-exist on the same planet. You may be thinking that I am just about to reaffirm all the bad things you may have heard about Africa. When people find out that I lived there, they often want to know about the war and violence I saw there, because that is all they know about it. That is all the media tells us. In this and in many other ways, we are victims of our media.

The truth is, I didn't see much violence in Cameroon, the country where I was living. I have seen and heard more about violence on the streets of Philadelphia since moving here than I ever did in Cameroon.

What I did see, and what I continue to think about, is a very distorted distribution of the world's food and economic resources. It is odd to me that Americans have a lot of money and things and are a part of a society that tells us that more is better. And yet, few of us are really happy. On the other hand, Cameroonians have very little in the way of material goods or money. Despite their problems with poverty, hunger, and corruption, many Cameroonians lead very happy lives. The simplicity of life almost seems to be a part of what makes them happy. I think that Americans can learn a lot from Africans in this regard.

We Americans spend a lot of money on stuff. Have you ever really thought about how much money you spend on things you really don't need? We have no problem dropping a couple hundred dollars on one item we think we really want or need. Yet, many Africans live on less than $250 dollars a year. That's less than $1 a day. And they have to take care of themselves and their families on that amount.

This year for Easter, my husband and I sent some money to a family we know in Cameroon so that they could have an Easter dinner. The mother of this family was also supposed to give 2,000FCFA (Central African Francs) of that money to each child in the house. 2,000FCFA is the equivalent of about 4 U.S. dollars. It was more money than some of these children had ever seen. We called the house after Easter and spoke with the children. In talking to one of the girls who is in middle school, I asked her what she did with the money. I, being an American, and having been out of Africa for some time now, have forgotten what life is like there. I expected her to say what any normal American child would have said--"I'm saving it," or "I bought ____ toy I've been wanting," or, "I bought new clothes," or... something. But do you know what she said??? She replied, "I ate." I said, "You ate?" and she said, "Yes."

2,000FCFA, the equivalent of 4 U.S. dollars, would buy breakfast for a little girl in Cameroon for almost 3 weeks. Most days, she probably goes without breakfast. She also probably goes without lunch. She will eat one meal a day, in the evenings before going to bed. Some days, she may not eat anything.

I spend more than 4 U.S. dollars on one meal when I eat fast food. That fast food meal probably contains more calories than many African children consume in 2-3 days.

Think about that! I am wondering what we can do as a society to fix this problem. I am also wondering what we need to be doing about it as Christians. We can not say it is not our problem--in fact, much of this problem has been caused by us and our capitalist system and colonialist ways. In addition, Jesus told us and modeled for us that as followers of Christ, it is our problem.

I am not saying that we need to feel bad about eating fast food every now and then. I am just wondering what our responsibility is and should be to these people. I am also asking that we think about the ways in which we spend money and how that literally "buys into" a very warped system and a much larger problem.

I am sad about this because I do not know how to change it. It is a problem that is bigger than you or me. It is a problem that "sending money" will not solve--when the money is gone, once that little girl has eaten her 3 weeks worth of breakfasts, the problem will still be there. What are we going to do?

Friday, April 6, 2007

People Who Ruin Church for Other People

I have a friend who really has a problem with the church. The thing is, I know that one of the main reasons she has a problem with the church is because somebody else ruined it for her. That other person happens to be a pastor. He made her feel as though she could not be a part of the church unless she behaved in a certain way and thought in a certain way. Now, I don't want to speak for her, but I think maybe because of that bad experience she had with that pastor, she feels as though she can't trust the church and the people in it. And that is just wrong. Why do people have to ruin church for other people?

Many times, in our short-sighted sinfulness, we think we know better than God does, and that ends up hurting people. Telling someone they are not welcome because they are gay, or poor, or ask too many questions, or belong to a different Christian denomination than we do, puts God and God's grace in a BOX. Who are we to say that God would not welcome these people, too? Didn't Jesus eat with society's "undesireables?" Wouldn't he also eat with the church's so-called "undesireables?"

All I'm saying is that if we REALLY believe in a Christ who died for EVERYBODY'S sins (including our own!), and if we REALLY believe in a God who is "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love," then who are we to say who would or would not be loved by God? Who are we to ruin church for other people by telling them they are not welcome? Is not the call of the Christian to love one another, as Christ has loved us?

Grace is God's ultimate gift--God's love and forgiveness given freely for all. We cannot limit God's grace. It is not up to us to do so--it is not up to us to put it in a box. God's grace is wider and deeper and more profound than we could ever imagine with our limited human understanding. Didn't Jesus show this to us in the very way he lived and died and rose again FOR ALL OF US?

We really need to think hard about how we present ourselves and our faith to others, because, in everything we do, we are ambassadors for Christ. We are CALLED as Christians to model God's grace to everyone--especially to those who do not know God's love. Imagine how horrible it would be if because of our actions, someone decided that he or she did NOT want to know God or be a part of the church.

Someone else who is very close to me has left the church because, as he says, "If that's the way Christians are going to behave, then I don't want to be Christian!" This is not the legacy we want to leave. What a sin! I am ashamed of those Christians who ruin church for other people. I want to shout it from the mountaintops: "That's NOT who we are, and that's NOT the God I know! God loves you, and God wants to be in relationship with you! Come back and experience what it means to know God's grace and love!"