December 2, 2013

Helping or Hurting?

The doorbell buzzes loudly.

And to my shame, I cringe. Excuses start filling my mind. It’s too late, I’m tired, I’m taking care of Jocelyn, it’s family time.

Collin is home, and we exchange glances. He doesn’t hesitate. He never hesitates. He pushes his chair back, heads down the stairs, and crosses the patio to answer the door.

I have two guesses to who is standing at the door. Two guesses to who might be standing, waiting, and hoping.

It may be Victor. Victor sells orange juice for 50 cents and newspapers for 25 cents at the park nearby our house. Lately, his life has taken several hard blows. He has had continual health issues and can’t afford to buy the medicine that helps him function enough to work. He was only a few hundred dollars short of buying a piece of land, when the woman selling it to him threatened to terminate the sale. His mother has been sick and requires him to care for her. His nephew was hit by a car and couldn't afford necessary medications following surgery. His son got sick, and again, he couldn't afford any medicine.

When he has come to the door over the past few months, he explains “business is so slow right now;” “I don’t have many newspapers to sell;” “I will pay you back as soon as I can.” Victor never comes right out and asks us for money. Rather, he shares what has happened, and then waits. He waits for us to talk, to ask questions, and to eventually say how we can help.

A few times we invite Victor in. He sits, drinks some water, and talks with us. We tell him about the fleas we are struggling to exterminate in our apartment. He offers to pick us up a special flea powder from the vet for us, and we give him money to buy it. We have yet to receive the flea powder.

But it’s not just Victor who comes to our door. It may be Alejandra. She usually has a baby tied to her back and another child holding her hand. We hear bits about Alejandra from neighbors we talk to. She has an alcoholic husband. Her husband beats her. Her daughter is always sick and needs medicine. She doesn’t have a job. She got an apartment but can’t afford rent every month. The money she asks for goes straight to her alcoholic, wife-beating husband.

And one time we invite Alejandra in. She stands, and stares at our living room filled with couches, and our kitchen filled with the smell of a hearty meal cooking. We talk, try to entertain her daughter with drawing and games and TV. We try to offer food, a shower, fresh clothes. She doesn’t want any of it. She only wants milk for her baby. Awhile after she leaves, we realize Collin’s cell phone is missing.

And I’m not sure why I am sharing all of this.

Maybe because since high school I dreamed about living in a place like this, a place where it would be easy to get involved with helping the poor. Now I wouldn’t have to drive all the way from my house in the suburbs downtown to volunteer. Now I would be more willing to help and to give. Now I wouldn’t be so selfish with my time and money.

But now I realize how much I romanticized what it means to “get involved.” Moving to a third world country doesn’t fix my personality, doesn’t rid me of my desire for first world comforts, doesn’t help me get to know people out of my comfort zone, doesn't make me the Mother Theresa I wish I was.

In the US, I was “too busy” to drive twenty minutes and volunteer at a shelter or soup kitchen. In the US, I was shy, uncomfortable, and a little awkward in new settings with new people. In the US, I had a hard time naming any friends who aren’t Christians.

And guess what? In Guatemala, I am no different.

In Guatemala, sometimes I am “too busy” to walk down one flight of steps and answer the door.  In Guatemala, I am shy, uncomfortable, and a little awkward trying to speak Spanish and build relationships with new people. In Guatemala, I have a hard time naming friends who aren’t Christians.

Now I realize how much I romanticized what it means to “help,” what it means to “give.” Helping and giving can be complicated.

What if, when Victor and Alejandra come to our door, we are not actually helping them? What if we are enabling a husband to drink and beat his wife? Enabling a man to beg rather than “earn his own way,” which our Republican-raised minds are trained to think? What if they are abusing our desire to love? What if he is lying to us? What if we invite her in again and she steals something? What if we are only giving away fish instead of teaching people how to fish? What if we are alleviating symptoms but not addressing the sickness? What if poverty now has a face, the face of a child staring at us, and it’s not a simple yes or no anymore? What if we have read books like When Helping Hurts, and have talked to our missionary friends, and still struggle to find solid answers to these questions?

Getting involved. Helping. Giving. They’re  complicated.*** They take desire, commitment, sacrifice. They require wisdom and direction. They come with questions, troubles, and heartache. They’re inconvenient, messy, exhausting.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t try. Jesus never said to take the easy way through life. Rather, he said stuff like “narrow is the road that leads to life,” and “consider it pure joy when you face trials,” and “love with actions and in truth,” and “consider everything a loss compared to knowing Him.”

And I’m not saying to be stupid or to enable a brother to continue sinning. Jesus also said “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

But Jesus did not sacrifice His own life worrying about whether the people he was saving would take advantage of him, be thankful, or pay him back. Actually, Jesus sacrificed His own life knowing the people he saved would take advantage of Him, be ungrateful, and never be able to pay Him back.

So again, our faith and calling brings up a few more questions than answers, which is great. Through our questions we learn to trust. But what we do know for sure is this: Jesus calls us to get involved, to help, and to give. So we try to imitate his example of love and sacrifice. We pray for guidance and wisdom in our involvement, our giving, and helping. And we hope Christ receives the glory.

Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.  If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.

***(And when I say “getting involved,” “helping,” and “giving,” I want to be careful. It’s tempting to think that when we help, we are above those whom we are helping. Or worse, it’s tempting to have a “Jesus Complex,” thinking we are saving others or fixing them. We are not in Guatemala, thinking that as foreigners we can fix an entire country and save a nation of people. We are simply talking about building relationships and getting involved with those around us. Helping and giving are Christian duty, not means to lift ourselves up higher than we ought. But that’s an entirely different book that could be written.

Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”)

Grace and Peace,