And I did use my senses.
I took tea in the homes of people living with HIV. I listened to the hope-filled worship of the poor and the destitute. I smelled the awful stench of the dying and the savory aromas of wedding feasts. I watched children play games that told truths about the hard things they had seen with their young eyes. I washed away tears, held hands to pray and received many embraces.
But I don’t understand any better than when I left.
Sure I have more knowledge. I’ve seen first hand the effects of colonialism and apartheid. I know the ravaging toll of AIDS and TB. I’ve witnessed corruption and the waging war between the haves and the have-nots. But what I keep coming back to is that poverty and disease is senseless. They are scourges that make us less than human and leave so many marginalized and forgotten at the fraying edges of society.
At almost every traffic light in Johannesburg, stands someone begging or hawking—a mother with her baby on her back, a half-blind old man, a teenage boy in tatters, a young man selling stolen or black-market goods. It becomes second-nature to wave a hand and say “no thanks” or “not today,” avoiding eye-contact as much as possible and waiting for the light to turn green so that twinge of guilt can get shoved back down into the recesses of your spirit. You rationalize that you can’t give to everyone, that you already give to charity x or that you gave something to that other guy at that other traffic light. And in the process of saying “no” and averting your gaze, you forget that what is standing before you is a human being. And maybe you can’t give to every single person, but you can recognize their humanity. You can look into their eyes and ask about their day. You can smile and show kindness. And that is something that you can give.
Poverty, hunger, disease. They are all senseless. There is no reason that they exist, but yet they have been with us longer than our collective memory. When we live in a world that is bountiful, with enough water and food for everyone, why is there hunger? When we live in a world where only 7% of Christians are needed to adopt every orphan, why are there orphans? When we live in a world where ARVs are steadily become cheaper and new drugs are being invented, why do so many go without access? When we know that mother-to-child transmission is 100% preventable and that prevention is possible for everyone, why are there so many new cases of HIV transmission?
When I came to live in South Africa, I said that I wanted to touch and see and understand, but I think really it was more about finding something that was missing inside of me. I didn’t feel complete or whole, and maybe I thought that I would find the missing part in Africa. I would find it by throwing myself into a completely different culture, giving of myself and learning about this senseless poverty that disturbed and fascinated me.
Am I complete now? Well, no, I don’t think we are ever really complete. At least I hope we are not. But I did learn to be comfortable with myself here. I learned about myself and the me that God has created me to be. I learned that I am about justice and compassion. That I’m about faith and hope. That I’m about building-up and giving away.
I didn’t make sense of poverty while I was here, and I certainly didn’t solve the problem. But maybe every once in a while, I got to be the hands and feet of Jesus, and I definitely received the care and concern of others who acted as His hands and feet.
I may not understand poverty and disease any better, but I have seen how God shares the good news with the poor, how He binds up the brokenhearted, how He frees the captive and releases people from darkness. I've seen how He comforts those who mourn and provides for those who grieve. I’ve seen Him make beauty from the ashes and turn mourning into joy.
In Setswana, gospel good news is “mafoko a molemo.” I have heard and I have seen. I have tasted and I have smelled. I have touched good news, and it is good news. And I hope that in returning to the US, that I bring that good news with me. That I can speak of not just the senselessness I found but of the hope I found. That it is a story I will one day share with my daughter and that it will be part of the legacy I leave her. That I will continue to stand against the senselessness and for something brighter and richer for all people.
The type of poverty we have today is senseless. The labor of begging, the burden of disease, the hopelessness of hunger—all are senseless. And we have it in our power to rid ourselves of this senselessness. We have it in our power to do more than the right thing. We have it in our power to do the best thing. It’s about the choices we make every day and the choices we ask our governments to make. It’s about the choices we make collectively in our churches and our synagogues. It’s about making choices that benefit others and not always us. It’s about living a little less selfishly and a little more simply.
What have you seen and learned about senseless poverty?
What are you doing to make poverty a little less senseless?
How can you encourage others to live differently?