By Blogger Daryl Geffken
I used to work with middle school students. One of the things I’ve realized over the years is many people seem to look for this age group to be immature, lazy, selfish or otherwise incapable of engaging society in a positive manner. I used to tell my students to never make it easy for others to stereotype them. Given this, you may or may not be able to imagine my frustration at a comment after an article was published in the news a few years back. The article highlighted the efforts of our junior high ministry, which had fasted for 30 hours, raised $30,000 (one of the largest amounts in the nation) for World Vision, and served alongside eight local ministries. The comment was this: why should we care for those elsewhere when there is so much need in our own community? It seemed this comment negated the importance and value of the students’ efforts.
Over the past 13 years I have engaged in regular work with impoverished and marginalized people. In a lot of places: Spokane, Seattle, Bremerton, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tijuana and Northern Kenya. Locally, I have been a part of organizations with long-standing relationships with Cup of Cool Water, UTF (Under the Freeway), Mission Community Pres, En Christo, Alberta House, Union Gospel Mission and Catholic Charities. I have worked with World Vision International and their United States division in a variety of ways. I have succeeded and failed in implementing local service opportunities for teens and their mentors, researched local and global disparity and the systems that enable it to continue. I am eager to see a decrease in the opportunity gap everywhere.
Why am I bringing this up? To shed light on my background before I raise the following question: Why is it that seemingly every time I raise issues of global disparity one of the first responses is a reminder that poverty exists here in Spokane (or wherever else I was living at the time), often with the suggestion that local needs should be prioritized above all else? Is it a perceived need for fair airtime, or something else?
Personally, I don’t get it. I don’t get the comparative statements; I don’t get the advocacy that says here is better than there, or vice versa. I’m being sincere when I say that I would like to learn from other viewpoints. To answer my question, some have pointed to the progression of Acts 1:8 as if there was some normative sequencing or priority to sharing God’s love with people based on location confuses me. The statistics for both areas regarding growing disparity in nearly every part of the world point to resource distribution, levels of involvement and apathy that are disgusting and unnecessary. They are still only statistics, however. Stories drive action. Stories provide a connection point. I have been with people as they garbage pick for dinner in Spokane, Seattle, San Francisco, Tijuana and Kenya. I can’t say any of those experiences was more palatable for my psyche than the other. More importantly, I can’t say one person’s suffering and stolen dignity has less value than another, near or far.
I suggest there is a responsibility for those of us with the ability to access this post. We have a responsibility for local service and global impact. Yes, both. We cannot escape the globalization of our local living, which means that we are complicit in what is occurring beyond our region, state or nation (if you believe those human boundaries are still applicable). Likewise, we cannot live with integrity if we care for “the world” but ignore the needs of our local community. Actively loving others, whether distant or local shows us that we are connected to and responsible for one another.
It seems for students, at least, getting them out of their comfort zone and away from the familiarity and distractions of their daily lives allows them to engage with others in a whole new capacity. For some, this can be a one-time foray into the world of the underprivileged. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the summarizing thought, “I’m just so grateful for how blessed I am!” As if that is the intent of the experience. For me, these experiences serve two goals: first, a milestone that points to a location and moment in time that God is real and at work in human life. Second, a training event that shows students what they do in one location can be continued on in their lives. As we prepare to leave we begin the work of bridging the context. Bringing them home and pointing to avenues that we might have overlooked earlier; places where we can connect and learn and contribute.
I must engage poverty and disparity. I must decrease the opportunity gap. There is an element of this I can touch: local people, local ministries and local political systems. There is an element that is more distant: people, ministries and political systems. These arenas have different needs and different solutions, and that must be respected. Some will be drawn closer to one arena than another based on their experience and their connection with the stories of others. But, I’m curious, is it unreasonable to expect action in both?