Tuesday, April 8, 2008

She Even Has A Name

I’ve been doing humanitarian work for as long as I can remember. I recall quite vividly seeing the music video for “We are the World” back in 1985. I was only 7 years old. I’ve always been a music enthusiast, even at that age, and I was irrevocably moved by what I saw in that video. Here were all of the people I admired, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Bob Geldof, etc, fighting for people on the other side of the world. It was my first exposure to “Africans”. These little Ethiopian children (this was during the famine in Ethiopia) were dying of hunger. These kids were just like me; just like my friends. And I wondered why it was only these famous musicians that were fighting for them. Why wasn’t everyone up in arms about this? If this were happening in my classroom…well it simply wouldn’t. It couldn’t. Not in America. But it IS happening, even in America.

Why is it always “us” and “them”? Most people would say they believe in justice and equality, but few actually practice it, or even realize it’s something they have anything to do with. What would you do if your daughter, niece, or cousin was being sexually abused and you found out about it? I would imagine you’d do just about anything, even things you never dreamed you were capable of, just to stop this atrocity from happening. What if it was a little girl in your church or school? She was having her innocence stripped from her and nothing was being done about it. There would be an outrage, right? What if it was a little girl that lived in the ghetto near your city? And what if it was a little African girl? Really think about it. Where is your mind going? Do you feel yourself detaching? Can you start to feel your mind removing yourself from the responsibility of helping this innocent child? Now ask yourself how far removed from you she has to be for you to not care anymore? My guess is that once she’s removed from your immediate sphere of influence, she’s not your problem anymore. She becomes a “them”.

The problem is that people, Americans in particular, don’t even want to know the truth of what surrounds them. The term “ignorance is bliss” is no joke. We’ve become quite skilled at removing ourselves from the responsibility of loving our neighbors as ourselves. We become consumed by our everyday “needs”, which in most cases are not needs at all; they are simply worldly desires. If I had a picture of a little blond haired, blue eyed girl from your church and said she was being beaten, you would be angered. You’d want to stop it. You’d even feel responsible for stopping it simply because you now have knowledge of it. But if I hold up a picture of a little 7 year old girl from Rwanda that has been sold into prostitution in order to provide food for her AIDS infected mother and three sickly siblings, you’d likely cringe a little and say something like, “that’s just horrible and I can’t believe that is happening”. And you’d be correct because you really CAN’T believe its happening. It’s not even reality for you. If we really believed African’s are equal to Americans, the every day atrocities of Africa would cease. But we don’t. We see “us” and Africans, Iraqis, Indians, Asians, bums, poor people, or whatever makes it easy for us to separate “us” from “them”. We must detach in order to continue our lives of mere existence. Otherwise we become responsible for caring, for doing something, and no one wants that.

But we are all human. That includes all the people that the US is currently slaughtering in Iraq every day, all in the name of peace. I could tell you stories about little Africans, little Iraqis, and little kids in the streets of Nashville, New York and LA, but you’ve heard them already. What I’m asking is that you take any one of those stories and imagine you love that person. Don’t allow yourself to detach. Don’t dehumanize them. Don’t make that person a “them”. People often refuse to watch movies like Hotel Rwanda (not that it was entirely accurate), Beyond Rangoon, Tears of the Sun, and so on because they don’t want to know the horrors that go on in this world. They don’t want to believe that people are actually suffering through these atrocities or that they are really even people at all. They don’t want that responsibility. After all, ignorance is bliss, right?

If you consider yourself to be a caring, compassionate person that is searching for a way to help others; I would encourage you first to address the issue of “us and them”. People are always trying to figure out what “issue” they are going to get involved with or fight for. Don’t choose an issue. Choose people. What people are you going to fall in love with? What people will you choose to believe are just the same as you? They could be right down the street or in the shanty towns of Africa. This is not about charity. It’s about justice. And it’s about love. You love your family too much to let them suffer through injustice. What will it take for you love others in the same way? We are all human; children of God. ALL of us. Not just Americans. Not just the affluent. Your kid and the kid in Africa have the same value in God’s eyes. What about yours? This is a big test and few people ever really get it. When you believe that the little African girl is your own, and you fall in love with her as your own, the “issues” will present themselves. When you love someone, you begin to understand them and their needs. That’s when the “issues” will present themselves. You’ll know what to do.

When we talk about HIV, poverty, corruption and all of the other “African” issues, people very quickly think, “those are huge problems”, “we will never actually fix those issues”, “there is nothing I can do to stop HIV”, or any other number of hopeless proclamations. You can find a ton of great reasons to remove yourself from any responsibility in the situation. Or you may think that Bono and Bill Gates are already on it, so no worries; everything’s going to be ok. And that’s just the kind of thinking that are making all of those doubts become a reality. Imagine if all of us believed that we could make a difference, and that we could do it by simply realizing that it’s not us and them. We are together. The next time you see a picture of a starving little African child, or a bum on the street, spend some time imagining that person as your own daughter, sister, or friend. And know that they are. Believe it. We must first change the way our minds think before we can expect to change the world. But it’s happening every day. You just have to decide if you’re going to be part of the problem or part of the solution. There is no in-between. There is no in-between.

The poor, no matter what natinality, are not inanimate objects. Remember, she’s your daughter, your niece, your neighbor. She’s not an “African”. She’s not a statistic. She’s not a picture on the Compassion International commercial. She’s a little innocent girl. She even has a name.

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