Americans often come back from the Majority World saying, “that gave me good perspective.” However I think this “perspective” could actually be two different things, one of which–the more common of which–is subtly quite selfish, the other of which is an important “perspective” for rich Christians to somehow gain.
When I went to Tijuana with my youth group in 9th grade, I saw poverty for the first time. We built houses outside the city, and the half-clothed children startled me. I felt pity, and the situation really was pitiful. I felt noble, and I do believe our service was respectable.
However, many of us came back with “a new perspective” that sounds Christian but has very little in common with the self-giving love of Christ. We said again and again, “When I saw how little they had, I realized that I have so much, and I should be thankful.” Parents love to hear this last part from their children’s lips, and they should. Gratitude is good. If we arrive in Mexico ungrateful and depart grateful, that is a good development. However, as Christians who will stand before God, it’s insufficient.
It’s insufficient because we only saying, “I’m thankful that I’m not in their situation,” but what about them? Do we now care that they might be rescued from this situation? When we encounter destitute poverty, there’s something very selfish about walking away primarily with gladness (about my life) and not grief (for theirs).
To do so is like saying, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled (and thanks for the new perspective).”
However, on this trip, I’ve gained another type of “new perspective” from being with those who have less than me. It didn’t come from my time with the poor. It came from my time with the Indian middle class. I was invited to spend the night with a local pastor and his family, a totally new experience for me, and it taught me something about my own life.
Compared to my life, they do have less. The shower was cold. The mattresses were hard. The junior high-aged kids sleep on the (tile) living room floor. Three generations, 6 people, live in a place about the size of our 650 sq. ft. apartment. Yet, this isn’t poverty. There isn’t something wrong here, something to be fixed. This is a family who has chosen less than they could have in order to devote their lives in ministry, but this “less” isn’t a problem. They’re content, and well provided for.
In the past, others’ sadness challenged me to be happy. On this trip, my brother’s happiness is challenging me to be happy. This trip is reminding me that I have enough, not by showing me that others don’t (and somehow derive self-centered satisfaction from that) but by showing me that others do. Others with less than me have enough. That gives me a new perspective: Less than I have would be enough.
However, this does come back to those in dire poverty. It brings us back to that first new perspective, because the first paradigm shift said “now that I see those people don’t have enough, I realize I have enough,” but the second says, “now that I see these people do have enough, I realize I have more than enough.” If we let it, this new perspective can free us to actually do something about those who actually need our help.
The lesson for me is: I need help. I don’t need financial help from my brother with less, but I do need perspective help, wisdom help. With his help, perhaps I can be a better help to my sister who needs to be rescued.
“If a brother or sister is poorly clothes and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warned and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:15-17).