Justice in Mountains Beyond Mountains

I just finished Mountains Beyond Mountains, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder’s true account of the life of Dr. Paul Farmer, an infectious disease (ID) specialist. Here’s part of the inside-the-front-cover blurb:

“In medical school, Paul Farmer found his life’s calling: to cure infectious diseases and to bring the lifesaving tools of modern medicine to those who need them most. Kidder’s magnificent account takes us from Harvard to Haiti, Peru, Cuba, and Russia as Farmer changes minds and practices through his dedication to the philosophy that ‘the only real nation is humanity.’”

Though I found the accounts of worldwide medical politics fascinating, what gripped me most was Farmer’s dedication to the patients right in front of him. Many accounts reminded me of the stories my family-doctor father told at the dinner table. He, like Farmer, saw every person as a patient, someone to be helped. What also grabbed both my attention and my heart was Farmer’s insistence that we must treat the poor as if they are our own sister or brother, child or mother.

This insistence has often put Farmer at odds with medicine on a grand scale. The World Health Organization and other international medical entities, understandably so, want to impact the greatest number of lives with the limited funds they have, which means that those who suffer with resistant strains of a disease often get ignored. Dr. Farmer disagrees with this practice, in part because of his theory (which has been proven time and again through his and other’s clinical studies) that resistant strains, when untreated, eventually enter the general population, and the problem then multiplies. Better, though more expensive in the short-term, to make great efforts to find every person in a region who suffers from the disease, treat every case, no matter how complicated, and systematically eradicate the disease in that area in all its forms.

But the greater reason Farmer treats every patient he encounters is because of this belief: “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.” If you visit the Web page of Partners in Health, the organization Farmer, with others, founded, that quote of his is at the bottom of nearly every page.

This belief means Farmer is holistic in his approach to patient care. Well-fed people, living in decent housing, are less susceptible to infectious diseases, he argues. Therefore, in the process of administering medical treatment, he works to improve the nutrition and living conditions of his patients. He has poured out his life in order to accomplish this level of individual and community healthcare in some of the poorest places around the world.

The book is a good read. It’s also convicting. The title Mountains Beyond Mountains refers to a Haitian proverb: “Beyond mountains there are mountains,” and means that as you solve one problem, another presents itself, and so you go on and try to solve that one, too.

The proverb is so very true, and it should impact all of us, not just those who, like Farmer, are on the front line of the battle against poverty, disease, and injustice/oppression. The rest of us, though, can feel like we have no ability to impact the battle. What is the point, then, of thinking of it at all, of reading books like this? Kidder wrote: “The world is full of miserable places. One way of living comfortably is not to think about them or, when you do, to send money.”

Yet for those of us following Christ, “not thinking about them”—even if we do send money—is not an option. Paul Farmer is quoted as saying, “[Many people] think all the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves. We (Partners in Health) don’t believe that. There’s a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity. It’s what separates us from roaches.”

We Christians don’t believe that either. We are called to think and pray and care to the point that our own comfort eventually becomes secondary.

Still, it can sometimes feel like an abdication to simply send money or even to pray.

As long as the prayer and the giving impact our hearts, it’s not.

At a different point in the book, Kidder said of Farmer, “Lives of service depend on lives of support. He’d gotten help from many people.”

I tell my kids all the time that we are richer than 98% of the world’s population. (They often finish my quote and say, “We know, Mom. We know.” By the way, you can check your own ranking out at the Global Rich List). It helps our perspective to remember that fact so we don’t simply compare ourselves with the other middle-classers surrounding us and see our wealth as being a means for keeping up.

Kidder spoke on this truth: “How could a just God permit great misery? The Haitian peasants answered with a proverb: ‘Bondye konn bay, men li pa konn separe,’ in literal translation, ‘God gives but doesn’t share.’ This meant… God gives us humans everything we need to flourish, but he’s not the one who’s supposed to divvy up the loot. That charge was laid upon us.”

Yes.

 

NOTE: I’ve been through enough vague guilt trips that I certainly don’t want to lay one on anyone else. So what do we do when we don’t know what to do?

We start with prayer. God knows the resources He’s provided us with and the purpose He has for each one (whether they be time, money, or expertise). God directs us to (or directs to us) the neighbor next door, the local homeless shelter, orphans across the world, persecuted believers, resettled refugees from Syria or the Congo, or the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

Is it easier, perhaps, not to be burdened? Absolutely! But we’re missing so, so much if we stay aloof. We must be bold to pray even when we know it will push us to know God’s heart better—the heart that cares for the entire world and knows each injustice and sorrow.

We can’t know His heart if we don’t pray.

 

LINKS: Here are a few links to U.S. and international organizations that are concerned with justice and health for all:

World Vision

Compassion International

International Justice Mission

Food for the Hungry

Samaritan’s Purse

Feed My Starving Children

Mercy Ships

For smaller organizations, please see the “What I’m passionate about” column on the right side of my blog.

FURTHER READING: To read more about the subject of Biblical justice, follow this link to “A Justice Manifesto,” written by Kelli Trujillo for the July/August 2013 issue of Relevant Magazine. It’s a great big-picture article with excellent sidebars on specific issues and/or ways to get involved.

In the same issue of Relevant, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson wrote “Why You Can’t Save the World.” It’s excellent and a good reminder of the truth that we aren’t called to save the world, just to trust and follow Christ. Saving the world is His job.

PRAYER: Father, as Christ taught us, we, too, pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Our hearts long for heaven, Lord, for Your goodness and justice to be the living reality for all. We pray against oppression, inequality, and persecution. Teach us Your justice and how to live justly where we have been placed. Teach us and then so soften and burden our hearts with Your grace that we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with You.

In Christ we pray this. Amen.

On Inner and Outer Needs

Late last summer I took my children to the dentist for their pre-school-year checkups. One of them had some kind of procedure done, and the usual “thirty minutes before you can eat solid foods” was extended to two hours. So I decided to treat everyone to milkshakes from Scoobys.

On the way there I stopped in at Walgreens to pick up a picture order. The kids began to troop in with me, but a voice behind made us all stop.

“Hi m’am. Hi kids.”

We turned. “M’am, I was hoping to get some lunch at Subway. Do you have something to spare?”

He had big eyes and a mouth that grinned wide.

I pulled a bill from my wallet and handed it over.

He said it before I could. “God bless you, m’am. And your children.”

“God bless you, too,” I told him.

We picked up the photos, got back in the car, and headed to Scoobys. The children talked about the man. “I wonder what he’s ordering at Subway?” one said. “Do you think he has a home?” said another.

No one was in the drive-through at Scoobys, a good thing since my kids suddenly couldn’t make up their minds about flavors. I stopped about a car length from the order board so we could decide.

Suddenly a loud honk interrupted our deciding. A man in a large, shiny SUV, parked in the small lot to our right, was trying to back out, and we were in his way.

We weren’t keeping him from getting out of the lot. His was the only car in it. He could have moved straight back and had clear access to the road. We were in the drive-through lane, exactly where we would have been had another car been in front of us. But he wanted to go where we were.

And he was angry we hadn’t noticed.

Very angry.

Our windows shielded us from deciphering his actual words, but the volume of his scream penetrated the car. His face had turned deep red and his mouth twisted and distorted as he screamed. He jabbed his left hand up, middle finger skyward in a clear gesture.

For a brief second I froze. Then I eased the car forward.

He screeched back and rocketed out of the lot.

Silence.

I tried to bring back the celebratory mood. “So, you guys know what you want now?”

There was no more banter, no more fun in deciding. “Two chocolates, one vanilla, one strawberry,” I told the woman at the window.

The quiet persisted until one of the children softly asked, “Why was he so angry?”

We talked about it then, and Emily eventually cracked a joke that eased the tension.

But my kids haven’t forgotten. The other day I asked Patrick, “Hey, do you remember the man who yelled at us at Scooby’s?”

Patrick’s eyes went wide. “He was scary,” he said.

But he’s forgotten the man who asked for money just minutes before.

I have not.

They were so different—the one with his well-worn clothing and cracked shoes, the other with his giant, shiny car.

Yet they were also alike—with matching inward needs that stretch to the soul.

Would SUV man able to admit this inner need? Subway man admitted to his outward, obvious one. SUV man didn’t have Subway man’s obvious, outer needs, yet his angry outburst was evidence of something broken within him.

As I’ve thought about these two people, I’ve wondered which one would be more open to Christ. If God were holding out His hands to both men, which one would be more likely to grab hold? Could outward vulnerability make people more able to admit to an inner need as well? Could this hint at what Christ meant when he called the poor in spirit “blessed”?

I don’t know, and honestly, it’s not really a valid question as it pertains to those two men. I know nothing of them. I don’t know if Subway man was conning me with charm or if SUV man had just experienced something horrific and was simply overwhelmed with emotion. I’ve never seen either man again.

Will you acknowledge your soul-deep needs and cling to God’s hands?

I don’t need to know their answers to that question.

I need to know mine.

Mercy Childcare Video

This is Angel, whom I've known for nearly six years now. Angel was also rescued by MCCM. She is now studying to help communities fight poverty and its effects on children. You go, Angel! I'm so proud of her.

This is Angel, whom I’ve known for nearly six years now. Angel was also rescued by MCCM. She is now studying to help communities fight poverty and its effects on children. You go, Angel! I’m so proud of her.

I have written much about Mercy Childcare Ministries (MCCM) here on my blog. MCCM rescued our son, Patrick, and worked with us as we adopted him. Dave and I and our oldest child, Emily, along with a team of 15 other people, visited MCCM this past July and had a wonderful, God-blessed time there.

The director of MCCM, Wilfred Rugumba, just posted a link to a video about MCCM, and I wanted to pass it on.

Thanks for reading,

Jen

Kisses from Katie, devos: Rich and Poor

Shoes vs. Feet

Shoes vs. Feet

Rich and Poor

Jesus said, “You will always have poor among you.”

We know that we, as Americans, are among the richest people in the world. Much of the time we can ignore this uncomfortable truth: that while we live in plenty, others suffer and die from the lack of food, shelter, and medicine. But on a trip like this, we can ignore it no longer, and that is a good thing. God does not want us to live in ignorance of the needs of others. So what do we do with this tension?

Questions for thought/discussion

  1. What are our responsibilities for/to the poor?
  2. What do we “do” with the extravagance/materialism of our culture and the great need of people in places like Africa?
  3. How do we avoid giving out of guilt? What’s the “right” motivation for giving?
  4. What do we do with the argument that we have needy people in the U.S. and we should give to them first?
  5. How does contentment relate to this issue? What does contentment look like in our home culture? Not just being content in having less than some BUT in having more than others? Is there such a thing in being content in having more?
  6. How does God view our homes/our spaces/our stuff? Is sharing more difficult than giving outright?

Jackfruit

NOTE: It’s been finals week–ugh!–which is why I haven’t blogged lately. This post is the piece I wrote for my final writing class assignment (also this week). It’s about my time in Uganda but probably won’t fit into  the book about Patrick’s adoption.

“Jackfruit”

The pimply jackfruit sits on Vena’s knees like a second pregnant belly, the size of a basketball but misshapen, yellow-brown. The stink of rotten onions fills the small car—Vena picked it well—and Wilfred puts the windows down.

The look, smell—the dense weight—it would never sell in a U.S. grocery store, the muzungu thinks. But machete through the ugly rind and what a treasure. Pineapple-banana scent, warm yellow color, exotic tulip-shaped fruits nestled, jewel-like, in a yellow velvet pulp.

The muzungu peers her neck to catch fragments of the sky between the shacks, leaning buildings, trash heaps that crowd the narrow alleys and streets crisscrossing this hill-mountain. She shifts Patrick on her lap so he can see their upward climb. He points and jabbers, waves at children. Wilfred turns this way, that way—a fun maze without the fun.

At the very top is a flat space, with a large concrete building that looks as if a wrecking ball swung through it a few times but then gave up. Wilfred crunches to a stop on the rubble that is working its way out from the structure. Men, young and old, squat on the ground, sit on chunks of cement and in blown-out window ledges, stand around in small groups. It is a Sunday, but, judging by the looks of the area, this may be the scene every day of the week. Two young men approach as they get from the car, and Wilfred huddles with them, slips them some cash.

Vena hands Wilfred the jackfruit and leads, picking her way carefully in her Sunday shoes. Just over the crest of the hill, they see the slum, spilling down the side. Cast-off building materials poured from a giant dump truck, heaped up haphazardly into “homes.”

Vena nods at the women cooking over open charcoal fires, sitting on doorsteps feeding babies, hanging laundry. The muzungu follows her, clutching Patrick to her side as if he will somehow transform her white skin, her other-ness. She nods, too. Some women dip their heads, a couple even smile, but the men’s eyes are hard. The rare muzungu who comes here bears judgment or pity, neither of which builds a father’s sense of manhood.

I’m Alice, going deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole.

No, that’s not quite intense enough.

The red dirt paths between the homes form channels for run-off from above. They are walking on the slick, smooth bank of a stream. The smell of waste grows stronger when the water pools, covers the vegetable scent from cooking pots. She copies Vena’s flat-footed, splayed-out steps, leans on buildings at tricky spots. If she had her arms free she could touch fingertips to the walls on both sides, elbow-to-elbow in some spots.

Down, down, down. The maze driving up the hill was nothing compared to this. How does Vena know where to go?

Then Vena stops.

“Uncle? Uncle?” she calls.

She ducks her head inside a doorway.

Excited chatter. A woman steps out, near the same age as Vena but looking older with her hair in a kerchief and her chest sloping like a soft hill all the way to her waist. She hugs Vena, pats one large, strong hand on Vena’s belly. Wilfred, who came down the hill behind the muzungu, stands by, holding the jackfruit, smiling.

Vena turns to the muzungu. “This is my cousin. We grew up together.”

The cousin tucks her head, but the muzungu reaches out for one of her hands, shakes it. The cousin’s head comes up, her eyes brighten.

“This is Jennifer. She is adopting Patrick,” Vena tells her. “She is living with us for awhile.”

The cousin motions them in. Their eyes adjust to the sudden dark. One room, no windows, though light filters in through a jagged hole high up in the wall, covered with a piece of cloth. One small, upholstered chair sits next to the door. Across from it two others are stacked, with a small coffee table perched on top. Vena takes the jackfruit from Wilfred, puts it on a shelf that holds a bag of rice, a bag of beans, and says something to him, tipping her head toward the chairs. Wilfred sets the coffee table in the center of the room and places the chairs around it.

“Jennifer, sit there.” Obediently the muzungu sits. Her knees touch the table. Patrick slides from her lap and stomps his feet, glad to be down. He beats his hands on the table.

There is a rustle just above the muzungu’s head. Halfway up the wall, the bricks jut in, forming a wide, deep alcove. A man sits up inside this, swings his legs over the side.

“Uncle!” Vena says. He slips down, one hand clutching his loose pants, the other holding his buttonless cardigan closed over his bare brown chest. He blinks but then recognizes Vena and begins chattering in Lugandan. The muzungu pulls up her feet so he can shuffle between the table and the chairs. Vena hugs him gently.

“Jennifer, this is my uncle.”

He turns to the muzungu, a smile splitting his wrinkled face. Cracked brown teeth fill the gap. Beside him Vena’s white teeth gleam. A picture perfect for toothpaste advertising.

Vena told the muzungu once that she, Vena, had such nice teeth because she had no sugar as a child. “We were lucky to get one meal a day,” she said. “No money for sweets.”

“So if a person has nice teeth, they were probably poor growing up?”

Vena shook her head. “They were poor AND their mamas cared about their teeth. The ones with teeth like…?” She pointed at her gums and looked at the muzungu.

“Stumps? Decayed?”

“Yes. Their mamas gave them sugar cane as babies. Cheap. Keeps them from fussing. Easier for the mama, but bad for the teeth.”

The uncle settles in his chair, the one near the door. Wilfred stands, uncertain, until the young cousin pulls a wooden stool out from against the wall. She and Vena hold a hushed conference, and the cousin slips past the door cloth.

They talk, the voices up and down, laughter tinging. Patrick moves down the table, wiggles his way between the uncle’s knees. The uncle asks Patrick questions. More laughter.

The muzungu does not understand, but she smiles, watches, tries to look at the room without showing that she is. Labels—the plastic ones from 2-liter soda bottles—have been fastened to the wall. Coca-Cola, Fanta, Mountain Dew, Sundrop; a red, orange, purple, green, yellow patchwork. She watches the uncle’s hand rub Patrick’s head, answers the questions he asks her through Vena.

The cousin comes back with soft drinks, lukewarm in glass bottles, small cakes in cellophane packages. The muzungu hopes Vena gave the cousin money for this.

Is her reluctance to take—masked as guilt for their spending money on her—a way to separate? She remembers the story of the three Southern pastors, firm in their conviction that drinking alcohol was a sin, being offered beer by a pastor at an overseas conference. Two refused, one accepted. When the two later said, “How could you?” the other answered, “I thought one of us should act like a Christian.”

Translation: not separate, not better. Seeing past the outside, looking in.

The cousin pulls aside the doorcloth and sits on the stoop so she can talk to Vena and still greet passersby. A few stop to chat. A few try English with the muzungu. More laughter. The bright patchwork on the wall fades as the light changes. The cousin’s shadow stretches behind her.

Vena stands.

“No, Uncle, do not get up.” She leans down to hug him.

The muzungu steps over the table, stands near the uncle. “Good-bye,” he tells her. The cousin reaches for the muzungu’s hand, holds it for a moment before Vena leads them out.

Out to where sewage smell drifts up from the water in the path.

Just like jackfruit.

Ugandan girl

NOTE: This piece fits with my continued focus on gratitude–and this week being Thanksgiving. It’s a possible chapter in my book on Patrick’s adoption.  The muzungu in the piece is me. The young Ugandan man is Philip, one of the pastors at Light the World church, currently a student at Moody Bible Institute. 

Here's my little Ugandan cowboy.

In the shade, the air settles on skin like hot, damp cloth. In the open the sun blasts like a blowtorch. Women passing carry umbrellas, open them to block the heat rays. Men wet handkerchiefs to spread over their heads or tuck inside their collars. As matatus swerve into bus stops, the scent of sweat drifts toward those waiting to board. Women holding chickens in small wire cages or bundles of bananas argue with the conductor to hold them on their laps. “No, you cannot tie them to the roof today.” They are afraid they will find cooked meat and shriveled fruit at the end of their journeys.

People sit under awnings, seek out the cool of open-front bars. Those who have to walk the sides of the road scurry from the shelter of one scrawny tree to the next or stride with purpose, the sooner to get out of the sun. They skirt around the girl sitting listless on this busy corner. They edge away from her hopelessness. A square of cardboard lies next to her. She lifts it to shield her head from the heat, but her arm grows tired, and she lets it drop. It takes up no more space than she does on the small ragged cloth she sits on. One leg, skinny like a chicken’s, is tucked beneath her. She pulls the other to her chest, tucking the skirt of her worn, color-faded dress around her leg so she is not exposed. One outstretched arm rests on the top of her lifted knee. She turns her palm up, fingers curved to catch the coins that no one drops.

Eleven? Nine? It is hard to tell. Her face has lost any impish qualities of childhood, any softness. It is angles and planes, and the dark eyes in the face have no light to them. She stares at the ground, uninterested in what passes, but when people come near, she lifts her face so they see her, so, perhaps, they notice her. It is an appeal the “guardians” teach their street children, one the children, in turn, teach each other. “Hold up your face, look sad, some kind uncle or auntie may take pity and give you a coin. Maybe a muzungu. Sometimes they give more.”

But no one pauses to drop coins into her cupped palm. Though she follows the rule, turns her face up, she does not give the right face, the face that draws pity, sympathy. She is past “sad.” She is blank. If she is on her own, she will not eat today unless she steals or finds some scrap unwanted by anyone else. If she has a guardian, she will be beaten. She will be told to sell her body if her begging does not bring coins.

The wind swirls grit from the packed dirt walkway, and she closes her eyes, brings her other hand, bony, long-fingered, up to shield them. Her knees and elbows are dusty,  with wrinkles like the joints of an elephant. The skin of her legs and arms is chapped; gray shadows hover on her dull brown skin.

She lifts her face again. No passerby this time, but the spicy scent of pilau, floating out of the restaurant behind her. Her face still does not change, but she breathes in deep the onion, the chicken, the rice. Her chest rises high and falls. Repeats.

Inside the restaurant, tucked beyond the awning, near the coolness of the concrete walls, a muzungu woman and a Ugandan man wait. The waitress brings out food. She slides a tray of meat and potatoes in front of the young man, then adds a bowl of broth, a small side of vegetables. He smooths his spotless white buttoned shirt and rubs his hands together. The pilau is placed in front of the woman, a missionary or aid worker by the looks of her, with her long, dark split skirt and wrinkled t-shirt. Short dark hair sprinkled with gray frizzes around large-lensed glasses. Her nose shows pink from the sun. She leans toward the young Ugandan, asking a question. His eyes glint and he smiles, showing strong white teeth. He talks between mouthfuls of meat, leaning down to pull strips from the bones, gesturing gracefully with his long, slender fingers. The woman finishes her pilau and sits back, listening to the man talk. She motions to the waitress, who brings another plate of meat to the man and swings her hips as she walks away, hoping the handsome young friend of muzungus will notice her, but his close-cropped head doesn’t turn her direction.

It does tilt, though, toward the front of the restaurant, at the girl sitting on the ragged cloth. He looks back at the muzungu, keeps talking, but he is distracted, and she notices, turns in her seat to look behind her, sees the street child. They stop talking, stare at the girl. She does not notice, her head still tucked to her chest, her neck bent level with its weight.

The muzungu turns back to the man, asks him something again, her eyebrows pulled together, a deep line separating them. The man shakes his head, his shoulders slump, but then he speaks again, his arms waving, his food forgotten. His voice rises, phrases puff up into the damp, hot air. “Thousands of them.” “Government has no plan.” “Police round them up, put them out of the city whenever an official visits.” “Eventually drift back.”

“More every year.” “Girls pregnant.” “First sexual encounters as children.”

“Some find guardians, more like pimps.” “Beaten if they don’t bring home money.” “Prostitution.” “Not enough homes.”

The muzungu puts her elbows on the table, her chin in her hands.

The man winds down, sits back in his chair. They are quiet together. They sit like the girl, still, slumped, their words finished.

The woman pushes up from the table, goes to the counter and talks with the waitress. She returns, and the man looks up. She speaks. He nods.

They go to the counter together. The waitress hands the muzungu a platter piled high with food. She passes it to the man, and he carries it out into the sunlight, the blazing rays making his brown skin glow like polished wood. He sets the food down and kneels beside the girl, puts a hand on her shoulder, speaks, his Lugandan words a gentle murmur.

The muzungu hitches her bag higher on her shoulder, tucks it tight against her side, and moves a little way down the street to wait for her Ugandan friend.