This is a guest post by my friend Andrew Ruth. After graduating from Duke Divinity School, Andrew and his wife Claire committed to being a part of The Phillips Talbot Global Ministry Fellowship through Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in NYC. They have spent the majority of their time in Zambia working with Theological Education by Extension in Zambia (TEEZ). Andrew is a visionary, a disciple-maker, and a preacher of unfiltered truth. You can follow he and Claire on their blog where this post first appeared and challenged me in a profound way.
“It just makes me feel icky all over.”
These are the true words spoken by a fellow mission co-worker in Malawi as she returned from talking to another guest at their door. This guest, like so many guests at a Mzungu’s door, sought a loan, another loan to be more exact. Whether their house or ours, almost daily, especially around meal time or nap time, someone stops by with something to sell or a story to tell—each with the goal of procuring some specified sum of money for some other specified worthy cause.
In my case, it usually happens like this:
There I stand, on the front stoop, listening to a single father use what little broken English he knows to ask me for money so he can buy “milk for the baby.” He looks down and lifts up a bag of fresh cassava leaves, “I have these cassava, but we need for the milk for the baby.” The leaves are common enough around and constitute a staple food for many villages, where they are steamed with a tomato or peanut butter, if one can find it. They are usually eaten with Nshima, which is like an unseasoned grit-cake, which can be made from the root of the cassava plant, but is usually ground from maize. He looks into the bag as he awaits an answer. I look into the bag as well—like somewhere in all those leaves there is the answer I need.
In the back of my mind are all the things I’ve read and heard about giving:
sustainable development,non-dependence-producing gifts,
give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,
you can’t help them all,
if you give to one, more and more will just come to your gates
giving just promotes begging,
what if he spends it on alcohol instead,
what if he’s lying,
Jesus said give to everyone who asks of you,
you’re just enabling,
send them to an NGO,
trade work for money,
don’t give cash, always give food,
giving can become a savior-complex,
do unto others as you would have them do unto you,
he who gives to the poor lends to the Lord,
deserving vs. undeserving poor,
the Lord loves a cheerful giver,
be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves,
gold and silver I have not, but what I have I will give you,
I was hungry and you didn’t feed me,
is it tax deductible,
all your aid just hurts
charity humiliates, work dignifies,
give a person an inch and he’ll take a mile,
they probably just made bad decisions with money,
how do I know they won’t waste this like everything else,
anything I could give would just be a drop in the bucket,
what will they do next week, when the formula is gone,
what if I run out of money,
what happened to the money they got last time,
the Lord causes the sun to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous,
how many times must I forgive my brother,
judge not less you be judged,
love justice, do mercy, walk humbly with your God,
blessed are the poor,
woe to you who are rich,
you cannot serve both God and mammon,
true religion is this, caring for the widows and the orphans,
let us not love in word and tongue, but in deed and truth,
they’ll just be back next week,
nshima isn’t even nutritious,
giving is more about the giver than the recipient,
you’re just doing this to feel good,
you’re being played,
why can’t they go to someone else,
pastor so-and-so would know a better way to give,
there has to be a better way to deal with this,
how can I say, “no” without lying or being a jerk,
we’ve already overspent our giving budget for this month,
how can I go fishing with money this man needs to feed his family,
why do I have money and this man has to beg,
I could give him seeds for a garden, but what will he eat between now and then,
the Lord loves a cheerful giver, but I’m ok with a reluctant one.
“It just makes me feel icky all over. Whether I give or not, it just makes me feel icky, all over.”
I agree. With all those things running through your brain, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. You can already hear judgment passed against you by the imaginary neighbor folks in the USA, who know better how to handle these situations, who know more helpful ways to give, or who give more quickly, or whatever else.
The entire experience is judgment passed. The judgment is already passed by the time you turn the latch on the door.
Poverty is complex, economies are complex, but when you open the door to this man or any other person asking for assistance, giving gets very simple: You either give or you don’t. You either say “yes” or “no.”
Sure you might try to modify the sum or turn the gift into a loan or defer til next month, but each of these is still either a “yes” or a “no.” There really is no middle ground, and the voices of books you’ve read and people you’ve talked to are of no help.
“It just makes me feel icky all over. Whether I believe them or not, whether I give food or not, buy something or loan money, collateral or not. It just makes me feel icky, all over.”
I’m not going to posture like I know the right response, or the best way to deal with this, nor am I going to try and write what I think a pastor or “missionary” should do–such pretense is unhelpful but tempting, except that I don’t even have a clue what to say to make you like me or praise my actions. So I’ll just try to tell you the truth.
After trying to read the cassava leaves like tea leaves in some enchanted bowl, I slowly move my eyes upward from the bag to the creased and calloused hand, deep brown on the outside, coffee with cream color on the palms, fingernails short and thin, no rings; from the hand to the sleeve of his once royal blue coveralls, thin and bleached in the elbow, lined with reflectors as if we’d resorted to human traffic cones; the coveralls have an elastic waistband, they’re tucked into dry-rotted and cracked, black, rain boots. I reach his face and then finally his eyes, which rise with mine until they meet. I hold the glance with the agony of holding my breath, as I read in them not begging, nor anger, nor pride, nor pity, but patience long accustomed to need.
“Let me talk to my wife for a minute,” I say. I do this partly because I try to talk to Claire about our financial decisions, but honestly, I just want to share the burden and the heartbreak.
I walk in the kitchen slowly. “Fred says he needs 20,000 to buy formula for the baby.” I pause as our eyes meet. “He has a bag of cassava leaves he found somewhere,” I say as I let my eyes fall to the floor.
Then we stand in silence, and I make up my mind. You either say, “yes,” or you say, “no.”
We’ve been reading too much of the Bible lately, and my heart is already decided:
Proverbs 3:28 – Do not say to your neighbor, “Come back later; I’ll give it tomorrow” – when you now have it with you.
Proverbs 11:24 – One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.
Proverbs 13:23 – A poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away.
Proverbs 14:21 – He who despises his neighbor sins, but blessed is he who is kind to the needy.
Proverbs 14:31 – He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
Proverbs 19:17 – He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward him for what he has done.
Proverbs 19:22 – Better to be poor than a liar.
Matthew 5:42 – Give to the one who asks you and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Luke 6:30-36 – 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 love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even “sinners” love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even “sinners” do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even “sinners” lend to “sinners” expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
That is not all that the Bible says about giving to the poor, nor do I pretend that any of that is simple, but those are the verses I’ve read most recently and which resound in my soul like echoes in a canyon. I want to argue with Jesus over all of it. Almost every week I tell Jesus that if I give to everyone who asks of me, I’ll go broke. If I let people take my stuff without trying to get it back, people will steal everything I own. I tell him, “Jesus, I know that’s how the world should work, but that isn’t reality. That’s not the way life works.”
Jesus quietly reminds me that he created reality, and knows it better than I ever will, since this world is always sliding farther from Him who is Real into sin, which is the negation of Reality. Gently he reminds me that he has lived in this same unjust, needy, and often crappy world. He not only knows Paradise, but Paradise-Lost; Reality and Anti-Reality.
That’s when I get even more upset, and rage against the existence of poverty and injustice. I hate being asked for money. I hate that people need money and have to beg others for it. I hate that I hate it. I hate that I feel burdened at all, when I’m not the person oppressed by poverty. I hate holding the keys to a person’s next meal or career or family or education in my bank account. I hate that responsibility, and I hate that God has placed it on me. All that hatred is directed towards the Jesus who has asked me to do something I don’t want to do; and that exposes the nature of my heart more clearly than a mirror ever could. Deep inside of me, I am God-hating, God-mocking, Jesus-Arguing, Jesus-Usurping, I know better than you, I could have created a better world than this, you don’t even know how to take care of your children, Gollum, poor.
And as I sit in all this, consciously and unconsciously I hear Jesus say again, “I know, and your Father knows. We know what it is like to give to someone who might never repay you, who might use your gift against you, who might work destruction with the things you’ve built. I know what it’s like to give to undeserving and I know what it’s like to give until it hurts, and then to keep giving until you have nothing left, and then to give your very body. I know what it’s like to give to the ungrateful and the entitled, the broken and the contrite. I know. I know this is hard. I know because I have done it before. I know because I love you. This is what love does. Love risks pain in order to feel. Love risks death in order to actually live. I love you. Trust me.”
Then I walk back to the door–one hand in my pocket, clutching a wadded bill like Bilbo’s precious ring. The other hand carries a bag with a few cups of ground maize. I hold my face as straight as possible as I ask Fred several more questions: “How much does the formula cost? How long does it last? What will you do when it runs out? Do you have any prospect for work?” He answers them each with kindness and patience, and my heart breaks again as it feels the darkness inside me use these legitimate questions more like circus hoops than empathetic entreaties.
“I talked to Miss Claire, and we’d like to help. Here is some mealie-meal for nshima. We don’t have any formula here. If I give you some money, can you buy it on your way home?”
“Sure. Sure. Thank you sir. Sure. Can I thank the Madame as well?” He says as he looks past me for Claire. “Thank you Madame. Thank you.”
“Fred, where do you live?”
“Garnertown is very far. Almost 5km from here. How did you get here?”
“Just walk. We don’t have for the transport.”
“It’s a long trip. You better go so you can get home before dark or the rains.”
“Thank you, sir, madame. God bless you.”
“Mwende bwino mukwai. Stay well friend.”
He turns, and the door closes.
“Makes me feel icky all over.”
I don’t know if I did the right thing or not. I don’t know if I have a Savior complex, a sucker-complex, a soft heart, ice water in my veins, or a clear conscience.
I’m just trying to trust Jesus.