Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Monday Morning Jesus (Brian Konkol)

I do not look forward to Monday mornings.

I do not look forward to Monday mornings. However, while this distaste of mine may be similar to many (…I know quite a few people who do not like Mondays!), here in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa my reasons are quite different from most.

Monday is “trash day” in our area, which means, as local residents place their trash bags near the streets to be collected by municipality workers, the roads become cluttered with various men, women, and children searching through the multitude of bags before the trucks arrive. Each Monday morning I see anywhere between ten and thirty people searching for food, clothes, and anything else that could possibly be used or sold. The sights and smells are totally disgusting. I never look forward to it.

A natural initial reaction to the sights and smells of garbage searching is one of repulsion. It is easy to wonder, “How could anyone dig through garbage? What about the smell? What about the filth? How could anyone do such a thing?" However, after a small bit of consideration (…and a large dose of humility), one receives a different outlook, and the situation becomes even more offensive. Once one is able to get past the initial reaction, the question is no longer how someone could so such a thing, but rather, why they are in a position where they need to do such a thing. One asks the deeper questions: Why do so many people live in such a way? When the world is filled with so much wealth and technology, why do so many have so little? What does it say about our society when there is such a large gap between the wealthy who drive down the streets in luxury vehicles and the poor who hover off to the side looking through filthy waste? How can one person’s trash be another person’s treasure? What does all this say about us? What does all this mean for me?

I cannot imagine any person wants to search through garbage bags, just as I suppose no person wants to live in extreme poverty. However, the harsh reality of our world today is that billions of people throughout the world are forced to live in such dehumanizing situations because they have no other choice. Why is this? I suppose there are many who could argue as to why poverty exists, but what cannot be disputed is that it does indeed exist, and that it is a growing challenge throughout the world that inevitably affects all people in every corner of the world. According to the World Bank, there are currently more than one billion people living on less than $1 per day, while another three billion (…approximately half of the world's population) are living on less than $2 per day. In 2005, the poorest 40% of the world’s population accounted for 5% of global income, while the wealthiest 20% accounted for 75% of world income, and the wealthiest 10% accounted for 54%. Perhaps most startling of all, the United Nations reported that every three seconds a child dies as a result of extreme poverty (…try snapping your fingers every three seconds, do this for a minute, and you will realize just how serious this is).

The challenge of poverty is a serious issue for all global citizens, and of course, it must be a top priority for those who claim to follow the way of Jesus Christ.

I could be mistaken, but I believe Jesus was someone who was constantly committed to accompanying those most forgotten in society. I believe it was his top priority. Lepers, cripples, blind beggars, prostitutes, and other public outcasts were repeatedly the beneficiaries of Jesus’ care and concern. With this in mind, I would like to believe that if Jesus were physically walking among us today, he would most certainly be found alongside those digging through the garbage on Monday mornings. He would not scold them for doing such “filthy” things, but he would actually accompany them, listen, learn, and remind them that they are blessed, cherished, loved, valued, and regardless of their impoverished situation, they are beautiful children of God who deserve honor and respect. I believe Jesus would consider their life stories, get to know them, and perhaps find food and share a meal together. And of course, I believe that just as Jesus provided hope, love, and justice to so many during his life and ministry, he would call upon us to look outside ourselves and do the same in our day and age.

A number of global leaders have said that we now have the knowledge, information, technology, and resources to end extreme poverty; the only thing we lack is the moral and political will. Basically, we have to tools, but we do not have the motivation to use them. Why? I suppose one of the main reasons we lack the will is that the vast majority of those of us in the more affluent half of the world simply do not know anyone in the poorest half. How many of us are actually friends with someone who lives in extreme poverty? How often do we actually share a conversation with someone who is poor? How many names of poor people do we even know? Poverty is all around us, yet because the United States and other developed nations are so good at hiding it in back alleyways and out of plain view (South Africa has not yet mastered this art), we try not to think about it, and we most certainly try to avoid those who are victims of it. As much as the statistics are powerful, the reality is that it is easy to pass over numbers on a page, and it is much more difficult to forget your friends. This, I believe, is the key to it all.

There are many things that need to happen for extreme poverty to be reduced on a global scale, many of which are quite complicated to understand. However, even as we search to make sense of the complexities, I believe one simple thing we all can do to assist in the process is to change our relationship with the poor, both locally and globally. Sharing a simple conversation and building a relationship can teach us more about poverty than any report or textbook ever can. The commitment to spend time with local poor, or the ability to travel to a distant land, will teach us much more than anything we could ever view on CNN or National Geographic. We might be able to forget a magazine article or TV show, and we might even be able to forget heart-wrenching photos which are worth a thousand words, but when we look into the eyes of a child, or when we share a meal in a small tin shack with a family of twelve, it sits in our minds forever. We cannot forget.

The month of December is often recorded as the most common time period for charitable giving. The Season of Christmas and New Year often gives us “the will” to give. But sadly, by the end of January most people have forgotten about the poor and have gone back to the routines of their everyday lives. Perhaps what we need to remember is that people are poor not only during December, but they are poor each and every day of the year, and if we work together, great things can take place in all corners of the globe. The temptation of the ongoing global economic crisis is for us to look only at ourselves, and say “I can’t worry about others. I need to worry about myself”. Yet, the fact of the matter is that we must continue to look outward, for as we are intimately connected as Children of God, we must continue to follow Jesus’ call to love and care for those who are poor, marginalized, and are too often forgotten and left to suffer.

I suppose I will never enjoy Monday mornings here in Pietermaritzburg. It is challenging to experience such things. However, what I have come to realize over the past year in South Africa is that Monday mornings are my most important hours of the week. While Sunday mornings are usually reserved for formal worship, it is on Monday mornings that I experience Jesus the most. It is Jesus who walks alongside those who look through the garbage. It is Jesus who dwells in the slums. It is Jesus who sleeps in cardboard boxes and tin shacks. It is Jesus who comforts those infected and affected by HIV and AIDS. It is Jesus who is found in the cries of violence. It is Jesus who is found in the debris of wasted opportunity and lost lives. It is Jesus who is with us when we are with them.

I may never enjoy Monday mornings here, but I thank God for them, for if I were not confronted with the realities of extreme poverty, I wonder if I too would fall victim to the temptation of avoiding it at all costs. I thank God that Kristen and I have been welcomed into Lutheran communities of faith who worship in the poverty-stricken townships, for if we were not, I wonder if we too would forget that the Church is supposed to be “good news for the poor.” I thank God that we are able to sit with people face to face, to listen, to learn, and be shown that we Americans do not always have the answers, because all too often we have been a big part of the problem. I thank God for the forgiveness we receive from our local hosts when we think we understand but simply do not. I thank God that our hosts are willing to walk alongside us, for as Jesus is found among them, it is through them that I am able to experience Jesus walking alongside me.

In order to respect the dignity of every person, to promote the common good of society, and to follow the way of Jesus Christ, I pray that we all may renew our commitment to overcome extreme poverty. This is an issue that affects us all, and it can no longer be ignored. First, we commit ourselves to changing the way we relate with the poor through starting and building personal relationships, so that “the poor” are no longer statistics in a book or pictures on a screen, but flesh and blood people whose names we know and whom we have grown to value and love. Throughout the process we can also take concrete steps to seek relief and justice for those who suffer as victims of poverty, both near and far. The ELCA’s poverty resources can be an excellent start, (see below), for they provide much needed assistance to those who do not have the capabilities to produce it on their own. As time, energy, and resources are poured into poverty reduction projects, and as we learn to listen to and love the poor, not only will we have the “knowledge, information, technology, and resources” to end extreme poverty, but we also have “the moral and political will”. For the sake of the billions who suffer, may that day come sooner rather than later, because Monday morning is only a few days away.

For more information on reducing extreme global poverty, see: ELCA World Hunger, Stand with Africa, and ELCA Advocacy.