To Buy Can be Better Than to Give

IMG_7900My uncle booked a group table at the event I had invited him and my aunt to attend. When I offered to pay for my seat, but he said, “I’ve got you covered. Give whatever you want as a donation to the organization.”

We were at a Nepali fundraiser dinner for Friends of WPC Nepal, an organization dedicated to helping end and prevent human trafficking along the Nepal border. The founder is from a border town herself and growing up watched many of her childhood playmates leave for “opportunities”beyond their small town, only to never return.

At the back of the room was a display table where the founder and her daughter were selling beautiful, high-quality jewelry made by women in Nepal. The jewelry enables Nepali women to have employment in a solid community and prevents them from being trafficked into the sex trade. I thought about how much money I had allocated for this night and toiled between writing a check or purchasing a piece of jewelry.

A little personal background: I don’t enjoy shopping and rarely spend money on clothing, let alone jewelry. I’ve largely adopted my parents’ and grandparents’ model of thrifty living and generous giving. However, as I’ve become more aware of systems of commerce and the people impacted by those systems, I’ve realized that buying cheap clothing in order to write a larger check to a charity working against human trafficking is counter-intuitive when the cheap clothing was made by slave (or underpaid) labor. Or pinching pennies to purchase inexpensive chocolate so that you can have more pennies to donate towards an orphanage is hypocritical when you consider that the cocoa was sourced by child labor and conditions that harmed both people and planet leading to the need for an orphanage!

Furthermore, earning something causes people to value it more and feel greater self-worth than receiving a handout. Earning money can give people the ability to make choices previously unavailable to them, fosters self-esteem and provides opportunities that would not otherwise exist. As the founder of Sari Bari, an enterprise in Kolkata, India, which enables women to leave the sex trade by providing seamstress work, wrote after the first distribution of pay checks to the women, “a job does what a hand out can not…it gives hope and belief in self” (Power of a Paycheck). Case in point: before starting the Sari Bari business, the ministry team had worked for several years in the red light district, but during that time only one woman had left the sex trade. Yet since they began the Sari Bari business in 2006, 117 women have left the trade to find freedom and new lives!

In With Justice for All argued, John Perkins wrote, “Far more than they need our money, the poor need us—people. People with skills who will work with them and teach them how to become self-sufficient” (p.13). I strongly believe that providing people with dignified work is one of the best ways to end poverty and prevent human trafficking. Because of this, I chose to purchase a necklace rather than make a strict donation. Also, I chose it for myself in order to wear it as a conversational starter and promotional piece. When people ask about my necklace, I can tell them about Hetauda House, a place of safety for at-risk girls in Nepal.

I am not against gifts or donations, but sometimes it can be healthy to weigh all options. In this scenario, I felt like buying was a better investment in a cause I believe in than straight up giving.

Note: a few of my other favorite social enterprises that do similar work include the following:

If you know of others you’d recommend, leave a comment.

 

Prayers From Prison

Prayer-in-PrisonAn older, obviously intoxicated man carrying an open beer can blocked our path on the sidewalk. I was strolling back to Rainier Avenue Church with members from my community development team, having just enjoyed dinner at the new Poke’ restaurant in our neighborhood. I avoided eye contact and was about to skirt my way around this “drunk” when my friend Carlotta greeted him.

“Why hello! I’ve missed you!”

His eyes lit up, recognizing his friend.

“I’m gonna come back and pray for you all,” he said.

“Ok. We’ll look forward to seeing you.”

After their cheerful exchange she remarked, “He’s such a sweet man. He comes every Sunday before church and prays with us and for our congregation.”

Wow. I don’t come arrive Sunday mornings to pray for my church. I barely make it on time for the second service most weeks!

Too often we disregard people before we even give them a chance to speak, as I did the “drunk” I passed on the sidewalk. Yet if we paused to listen, we might not only have an opportunity to bless someone but to receive a blessing ourselves. I have found this to be true from the most surprising sources.

IMG_3002For example, last year I began writing letters to a friend I’ve known since childhood but hadn’t seen in over a decade. This friend is incarcerated. Controversy surrounds why he’s where he is. Perhaps he was guilty. Perhaps innocent.[1] The fact remains that he’s a human made in the image of God with a thirst for connection to people, to friends, to his Creator.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus spoke of how one defining quality of the sheep—those who make the right choice and inherit eternal life—was that “I was in prison and you came to visit me” and then explained that when we do it “for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”[2]

My friend lives several states away from me so visiting isn’t realistic. But I can visit in the form of a letter. So every month or two, I send him quotes from books I’ve been reading, verses of encouragement, stories from coworkers who serve in our judicial system and general life updates. He replies when he’s able to since he doesn’t always have money for postage stamps. Our correspondence isn’t romantic; my friend has a fiancé. No, he’s starving for spiritual companions. In fact, he has told me aside from parents and a grandmother, no one writes him now that he’s been locked up for a couple years. Ironically, many who support prison ministry to complete strangers have dismissed him as a “hopeless case” and finally getting what he deserves. Perhaps if he was a stranger to them, they would offer more empathy, more hope, more encouragement.

But the encouragement isn’t a one-way street. In spite of his struggles, depression and constant relocation, my friend always asks how he can pray for me and I’ve experienced acute answers to those prayers. In my most recent letter from this friend, he closed saying, “I pray for you every day.”

Wow. Few people say this to me. Fewer yet do it. Other than my parents and perhaps a couple grandmas, I suspect no one prays for me every single day. Honestly I don’t pray for anyone on an ongoing daily basis like that.

I am continually amazed not only that prayer often comes from the most unexpected sources but that those very sources put me to shame by the regularity of their prayers. I guess that’s because desperation drives us to God. Or as Jesus put it, “People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts.”[3]

~

[1] The fact that he’s a person of color in a slanted justice system makes me speculate that even if guilty he’s facing harsher treatment than he would were he white. But that’s another topic for another blog post. For those interested in a comprehensive, well-researched work on race and the US justice system, please read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

[2] Matthew 25:36 & 40

[3] Mark 2:17, Good News Translation

If My Hosts Were Refugees

footwashing

Receiving a phone call from my director while my Bengali sister was washing my feet.

“When tragedy happens we look for someone to blame,” my pastor said this past Sunday, reflecting on Orlando’s mass shooting that occurred the night before and imploring us to pause to grieve the lives taken. Yet blame is the easiest thing to do. It’s what the religious leaders during Jesus’ time on earth were all about: catch a woman in adultery and blame her. Find a man born blind and blame him or his parents for sinning. The list goes on.

One community that’s receiving blame after this incident is Muslim immigrants and refugees.

We blame our fears and we fear what’s unfamiliar. Among communities of faith, some might discourage encounters with people holding worldviews different from their own because such interactions could result in questioning or even rejecting their beliefs. For me, however, engaging on a deep level with people holding beliefs varied from my own has actually expanded and deepened my faith. Living several years in Bangladesh gave me insights on stories from the Bible that I would have never recognized had I stayed in the United States. Furthermore, my Muslim friends taught me about reverencing God, showing hospitality to strangers and praying in a disciplined fashion. To this day I still pray with my palms facing up, a position that indicates receptiveness to receiving God’s blessing.

A couple stories from the book I’ve been writing offer additional glimpses into the spiritual insights I gained from my experience of living with a Muslim family in a country far from my own:

Daisy*, the younger of the two daughters, was an energetic artist with a zest for life. Her older, more docile sister Nadine* would tease us and say that Daisy and I were “dushtu bons” (naughty sisters). She sometimes accompanied me to the English service at the Assembly of God church and after one service asked me to explain the meaning of the word “fellowship.”

“It’s like when you’re worshipping and you feel connected to God,” I tried to explain. She looked at me confused. As I was reflecting on our conversation later in the week, Revelation 3:20 came to mind:

“Look! I have been standing at the door, and I am constantly knocking. If anyone hears me calling him and opens the door, I will come in and fellowship with him and he with me.”

I thought of how Daisy and her family demonstrated hospitality to me, a trait prominent in Muslim cultures. My western mind was blown as I realized my understanding of “fellowship” had been limited and shaped by my religious experiences and had deviated from the original Biblical context. I excitedly shared the verse with Daisy and my insight into the meaning of this word that she had been so wonderfully displaying to me.

Another evening I shared the Last Supper story about how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.

“You all have been doing so much for me,” I said. “But Jesus taught that we should serve others. And in his day, people wore sandals and had very dirty feet, much like here. So I would like to wash your feet.”

“Oh no! You can’t possibly wash our feet!” they exclaimed.

I was their honored guest and a foreigner at that! They insisted on washing mine and I eventually agreed on the terms that I would get to wash theirs in exchange. It was a beautiful, sacred moment and gave me insight into the depth of shock Jesus’ disciples must have felt when their leader washed their feet.

~

Yet should friends like Daisy and Nadine find themselves in the United States, I cannot promise they would receive the same level of hospitality. Should they with their brothers and mother come to my country, the United States of America, would anyone invite them to their home? For many refugees and immigrants, they never get offered a drink of water, let alone someone giving up their own bed and washing their dirty feet! Fear causes us to suspect, rather than welcome. Biases presume that newcomers arrive only to take with little to offer. And simple busyness prevents many of us in the United States from engaging deeply with anyone, especially our newest neighbors in town!

Although I haven’t blamed these communities, I’ve still found myself making stereotypical assumptions. For instance, two weeks ago my pastor showed a video of a brief interview with a refugee family whom we at Rainier Avenue Church are welcoming into our neighborhood. As the father told his story, the mother sat in silence, hushing their children. I assumed she knew little to no English and had no formal education. Imagine my surprise when the interviewer turned to her and in English more fluent than her husbands, she told of how she had a degree in computer science and had worked at a university in Baghdad. Assumptions busted! She and her husband have so many talents to offer—from education to experience. Yet how well will we welcome them? When they apply for jobs, will we turn them away? When they ask for a place to sleep, will we tell them to get out of our already-crowded city? I am grateful to organizations like World Relief that are helping families like this one get connected to housing, jobs and most importantly people. And perhaps in welcoming new friends the way they would to us in their country, we will experience deeper understanding of each other and of God. For in the words of a twentieth-century prophet:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness;
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate;
only love can do that.
Hate multiplies hate,
violence multiplies violence,
and toughness multiplies toughness
in a descending spiral of destruction….
The chain reaction of evil —
hate begetting hate,
wars producing more wars —
must be broken,
or we shall be plunged
into the dark abyss of annihilation.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Strength To Love, 1963

*Names changed to protect privacy

Neighborhood Dreams

Rainier Valley Heritage Parade 2015

This guest post comes from Lauren Squires who volunteers with me on the Community Development team at Rainier Avenue Church. She recently shared this vision with our team, a group dedicated to our South Seattle neighborhood of Hillman City. An Urban Planner, Lauren sees community development through holistic lens that consider issues like sustainable transportation solutions alongside human equity and economic capacities. Her vision was inspired by an activity she participated in at CommonLife’s monthly neighborhood gatherings known as Fellowship of the Neighborhood. Thanks, Lauren, for sharing your thoughts; through shared vision and collaboration, such a dream can become a reality!

After a busy day at work, I hop on my bicycle to ride home up over Beacon Hill to Hillman City from downtown. Catching glimpses of the vistas, the Cascades saying goodnight to the Olympics as the spring sun settles behind. I wave, nod and smile to folks as I wind through the neighborhood streets.

Dropping down into the heart of Hillman City, the intersection of Rainier and Orcas is buzzing with people. The streets are closed for a neighborhood festival and block party. The people of the neighborhood have taken over the street. Vendors from the Somali market are cooking food and brewing chai, selling to the neighborhood from tents. Muslims from the mosque and Christians from Rainier Avenue Church work shoulder-to-shoulder to paint a mural in the street at the intersection of Juneau and Rainier. Women at Spinnaker Bay are pouring pints for a boisterous crowd in the beer garden set up in the street, tempting the dedicated CrossFitters tossing medicine balls back and forth just 10 feet away. Women are lined up along the sidewalk getting their hair braided, watching to the people groove to the band playing in front of Tarik’s restaurant and community culinary school recently opened in what use to be Maxim’s Gentleman’s club.

This is the epitome of neighborhood flourishing: to ride my bike home from work without my heart spiking once from a close call through a network of neighborhood streets and safe crossings—all the while recognizing faces and exchanging smiles. To be engulfed in a neighborhood gathering, surrounded by others that call this place home or who just pass through regularly for business and have stuck around for the evening. To see each community member’s presence and contribution celebrated and cherished. Each has a valued place at the table. Unity across race, age, income, creed and even transportation mode.
I scan the throng of neighbors eating, chasing toddlers, deep in conversation with each other or just taking it all in, as I am. I weave down the crowded sidewalk to lock up my bike. As I walk past DADS’ open door, inside I see OGs watching a basketball game with their sons, mentors coaching their younger brothers and a father changing his baby’s diaper at the front desk. If I would’ve seen these men anywhere else, I would’ve assumed the worst of them based on their clothes, speech and swagger. But those assumptions have been proven wrong too many times now. When I walk the streets of my neighborhood, it’s characterized by openness toward each other, assuming the best of one another, a leaning in and positive inquisitiveness about our difference instead of a pulling back.

~

What would it look like if your neighborhood was flourishing? Tell us in a comment.

Lauren Squires_Head Shot

Lauren Squires, Urban Planner

Lauren is an urban planner, active transportation specialist and community advocate enthusiastic about inclusive, livable places. A strong team member offering a range of strategic planning, policy development, bicycle and pedestrian design, facilitation and writing skills, at MIG|SvR Lauren works on projects ranging from complete streetscape concepts to multimodal transportation planning to community planning projects focused on health and equity. Lauren is passionate about urban systems and engaging complex issues to enhance quality of life in Seattle. A Rainier Valley resident, she regularly collaborates with diverse communities on neighborhood planning initiatives such as Rainier Valley Greenways. Lauren currently serves on the Seattle Planning Commission.