Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Who is My Neighbor?: Charity in an Age of Consumerism

The mall was so clean, it hurt. The marble floors gleamed a vaguely menacing glow. This was no ordinary credit cathedral: the surrounding town itself was a shopping mecca for the whole of the Boston metropolis. Nordstrom, Coach, even Tesla cars—the crème de la crème shopped here, and while they spent, personal valets cleaned and waxed their vehicles. Between purchases, buyers lounged in restaurants and nibbled sushi delivered to them not by waiters, but by motorized conveyor belts. 

In the midst of all this, I was lost. The homogeneous vastness of the mall had turned me around a third time. Weaving across aisles, I dodged countless kiosks and their hawkers of sub-standard goods—cell phone covers, electronic cigarettes, abundant summer sausages. And in every mall, I swear, works that poor soul whose livelihood depends on selling you that overpriced manicure kit, right here, RIGHT NOW, for only $64.95! Look! they say as they grasp your thumb, see how it shines up your fingernail!

That is shiny, you think to yourself. You excuse yourself with a mumble and move on.

I was about to give up and go home when I turned the very last corner and saw a kiosk that made me stop dead. This one wasn’t hawking eyebrow threading or trashy wigs. It was hawking child sponsorship.

The kiosk in question belonged to a very well-known evangelical charity, one that asks its patrons to sponsor a child (always poor, rarely white, always international) to whom the donor can also send cards and letters. I had only had time to stare for a moment when someone popped out from behind the kiosk. “I see you’re looking for us!” he said, noting my obvious lostness. “You found us!” He was very tall and very young and very eager, and he reminded me somewhat of my younger brother. So I decided to listen.

He asked if I had heard of his organization. I had. In fact, I told him, I had several acquaintances who already sponsored children—some of them three, four, or five children at once. How was I to compete with that?, I joked.

“Oh,” he said. He fell quiet for a moment. “Well…you could start with one!”

The conversation went predictably from there. He gave me his schpeal—we Americans were so blessed, so privileged, and for just the price of a cup of coffee every day, I could provide these children with health, warmth, and stability. But things took an uncomfortable turn when he pulled a brochure from the kiosk. He showed me a picture of a frowning child. “The child we’re focusing on today is Ephraim,” he said. “He is from Azerbaijan. Are you aware that there was a massive flood in Azerbaijan this spring?”

I wasn’t.

“Well, there was,” he went on, “and it was a mess. It wiped out entire villages.” This, he explained, had been very hard for Ephraim and his family. So much of the life they had known was gone.

My host went on to explain that, if I chose to sponsor Ephraim, I would help to bring stability and normality not only to his life, but to the entire town—though how, exactly, was never made clear.

Let me be clear: I am by no means out to belittle this particular organization or the work that they do. International aid, including child sponsorship, can be important (even if, as the Acton Institute and its contemporaries have noted, it is often implemented with mixed results). Christ calls us to be his hands and feet in all places.

What bothered me, however, was the context. A photograph of a child, a real child, with a real story, a real culture, a real context, placed on a shopping mall kiosk, paraded to wealthy passers-by like a summer sausage.

My host went out of his way to show me that his organization printed no handouts, broadcasted no tearjerking television commercials—and yet, they chose to advertise via a somewhat desperate young person who (according to him) spends eleven hours a day trying to pawn off the livelihoods of poor children to affluent shoppers. One wonders if he has a daily quota to fill. 

Whether it’s sponsoring a child, running a marathon for clean water, or sporting a pair of TOMS shoes (or any number of imitators that have cropped up, such as my personal favorite, BOBS), many American Christians are dedicated to aiding the poor, especially if the poor in question are "ethnic" (non-white), exotic, and very far away. Cheery T-shirts sport ambitious slogans like “Restore and Protect Children” and “Break the Cycle of Poverty.” The American sentiment to help seems, at best, an answer to Christ’s call to disciple all the nations—and, at worst, good intentions with a consumerist veneer.

There's also the issue of domestic versus foreign aid. How appealing would these pleas be if the glossy brochures sported not skinny, large-eyed children, but an obese single mother of three who lives in the bad side of town and has no income? Or a white twenty-year-old man with schizophrenia who wants, above all, to hold down a job, but struggles too much with his illness? Or an eighteen-year-old who was forced out of his home, dropped out of high school, and knows nothing but how to deal drugs? As a teacher, I worked with people like these (and many more like them) every day, and nobody—staff, faculty, passersby—seemed particularly eager to help them. I have yet to see a T-shirt that reads "Save the Schizophrenics" or "God Loves Drug Dealers, Too."

A common argument is that folks closer to home have any number of government welfare programs available to them; why, then, should we dirty our hands? Acton author Joe Carter points out that these programs are not a solution, but symptoms of a greater problem: "The fact that the government needs a safety net to catch those who would slip between the cracks of our economic system is evidence that I have failed to do God's work. The government cannot take the place of Christian charity," he says. "A loving embrace isn't given with food stamps." Carter knows what he's talking about: he grew up in poverty. 

Living in the most affluent neighborhood of my lifetime, I feel more challenged than ever to understand what itmeans to be a Christian and serve the poor not just around the world, but around the corner as well. St. Basil the Great, an early father of the church, offers us this challenge:

The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.

These words are convicting. I have no idea how to follow them. But I intend to find out. 

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