I am starting my second week here in Asia. I will be here in the Philippines through tomorrow night, and then head on to our fundraising office in Korea.
I don't normally take to my blog to talk about work. I don't want to talk about my job, or about what we do. Everyone makes their own choices, but this is my personal blog and I don't want to confuse it with my professional life. So please know, when I share this information, this is coming from my personal perspective. I'm not talking about what my employer does or doesn't do, and I'm not commenting on the efficacy of our work. It's good work, and poverty is complicated, but that's my day job: this is is about how my heart is seeing my time here.
The week has been emotionally intense. Time with staff has been refreshing and challenging. For all the stress I was feeling in the weeks leading up to this trip (prepping for the trip while managing another major project, while training for a marathon, while feeling guilty for relying completely on Eric to keep the house from falling down and preying on his patience as I didn't employ very good balancing techniques), I didn't realize just how good it would be just BE with the team here. We tackled hard issues and we came together to work on team formation - good but tough stuff.
This weekend, the office took several of us to visit two church partners to meet them, talk about our work, observe programming, and, as it turned out, visit the homes of three beneficiaries and meet their families.
Those homes were in the in between places.
This city, like so many in developed and developing nations, has an urban core that offers everything you could want: food, drink, entertainment, lodging, shopping, etc. I'm staying in one of the better hotels I've probably ever stayed in. The staff are amazing. The food is incredible - the breakfast buffet has no less than 100 items, and everything you could possibly imagine eating for breakfast - or dinner for that matter. The linens are clean, the shower is modern, and staying here neither reflects my "normal" life nor the normal life of our staff nor the children we serve. I should also mention we got a screaming deal on this hotel to make sure it fit within our modest budget for hosting a region-wide conference, otherwise, we would have been elsewhere.
Yet, all this development has an underbelly. Places between the places where the poor eek out an existence. Housing ramshackled together along the concrete ledge next
to the water. Makeshift tents in the median of the road.
I visited a family of 5 living in a five foot by ten foot space. I have visited family homes before and this was the smallest I have ever seen. I could not have laid down crosswise on their floor, yet all five of them somehow slept there every night. The place was clean - we took our shoes off to go inside, and tidy, with the family clothes and bed linens put away in orderly bins along the wall.
We took our shoes off to go into the house because we had climbed through two foot wide passages running with fetid water to get there. We walked bent over because these passages were designed for electric and phone lines than ran in thick ropes from the ceiling. We walked in darkness, with cell phone flashlights to illuminate the way. We passed other dwellings and makeshift shops that emerged out of the dark like ghosts, women leaning out of incongruous windows along the road that was both inside the building and yet outside at the same time, selling packaged snacks and hot food somehow cooked in this urban cave of a place. It was likely dangerous in all the ways the dark hides danger. We climbed staircases that were no wider than 18 inches that dropped off to the open below on one side. There were no hand rails.
The hundreds of people living in this place shared a few common toilets. Fire was each family's biggest concern. I don't know how people would get out if a fire started. They would most certainly lose everything of the very little they had. Someone, the government? the landlord? had installed a few fire extinguishers in common areas that looked like tiny courtyards, the space above open to let in the sun and the tiny bit of breeze that could make it in.
I watched a small boy snuggle into his father's lap as we sat on that tiny, clean floor. They told me about the 12-14 hour days dad works as a tricycle driver to earn 6-8 dollars to afford the $200 monthly rent for this closet at the top of the stairs where his family lives. The three children told me about their dreams for the future: to be an engineer, a teacher and a doctor. The parents' greatest hope is for their children to finish school.
At our third home, the girl we visited and I talked in the van on the way to her house. I only asked a few questions but this child decided that for the moment, of all of us visiting, I was her person. She grabbed my hand and would not let go throughout our visit. She clung to me, arm around my waist and outside arm grabbing my hand. This precious, beautiful 9 year old, who spontaneously quoted me Jeremiah 29:11 when I told her it was my favorite bible verse, also wanted to be a doctor when she grows up.
Until last month, this child lived in an open pushcart with her five siblings and parents, parked under a tree on a streetside, taking turns sleeping in order to be on watch for danger in the night. Standing in the now-rented home, her parents told me about the stress relief they feel sleeping under a roof each night. Yet I don't know how, in the long-term, they are going to afford the rent on the pay from streetsweeper and parking attendant jobs.
There is a deep place in my soul that is broken over this. I have work to do, and I need to put that place away for a little while, to keep myself from accessing, because I can feel it welling up as I write this, threatening to take over. I will cry and grieve later but I have one more week to go and that needs to wait.
A sermon on Sunday could have been tailor-made for me. I attended church with a co-worker, a dear friend. Her pastor preached out of Genesis. He told the story of Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar; how Sarah insisted Abraham sleep with their slave Hagar in order to have a child.
The pastor called it what it was: this was an act of sin. Sarah should have never told her husband to abuse their slave in this way. From my modern viewpoint with a focus on protection, this was rape. Hagar is a position of powerlessness: she can't consent to sex with Abraham. This was wrong.
The product of this rape was Abraham's first child: Ishmael. When Hagar becomes pregnant, she starts to despise Sarah (well, duh. Sarah is complicit in her rape, and now's she's pregnant. I'd probably have some hard feeling toward this particular slave owner too.) She runs away in a very pregnant state, but God convinces her to go back as she's wandering in the wilderness. She has the baby, and he grows. Sarah and Hagar's relationship never improves. Sarah eventually is told by God that she in her old age is going to have her own baby. When she gives birth and begins to raise Issac, she tells Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, so that "the son of my slave will never share the inheritance of my son."
Most of what I have been taught about this story focuses has focused on Sarah and Abraham and God's faithfulness to do as He promises in his own time. Hagar and Ishamel have played a background role. I've never really heard a sermon that delves into Sarah's treatment of Hagar. But holy cow. This women just didn't quit. She piles sin on sin: she has her husband rape her slave (who should have said 'no, out of the question,' but he didn't. He chose to rape, and that's even worse), then resents her slave for the baby that she told her husband he should have with her. When she has her own baby, she kicks out Abraham's first born and his mother.
She can't even dignify this woman by calling her by her name. Instead, she refers to her as "that slave woman." And out goes Hagar, into the wilderness, a different kind of in between space, with her son. They run out of water in the desert, and Hagar has Ishmael, now a teenager, lay down under a bush to be protected from the sun as he dies. There are no other human options: they are bound for death in a desert. Hagar walks away because she cannot bear to watch the death of her son.
If I were Sarah's social worker, I would probably have a serious conversation with her about taking responsibility for her actions, to say the least. If I were a bystander in this story, I'd probably have "other" words for Sarah.
Fortunately, that's not the end of it.
Genesis 21:17-20 "God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, 'What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.' Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer."
GOD HEARD THE CRIES.
God hears the cries. As my soul screams out for justice on behalf of these children, as they pray nightly, GOD HEARS. God has not abandoned them. I notice that God didn't transport Ishmael and Hagar out of the desert. They continued to live there. God was with them.
God is with the kids and families I met this weekend too. Although I would desperately love to spirit them away, out of the in between spaces, out of the dark places, God is with them. Just like Ishmael became an archer, the kids living in the in between places can become the doctor, the engineer, the teacher they want to be.
I don't understand why God doesn't come back and just fix all this. I don't understand why when we pray, He doesn't move the mountain or relocate the family. But I know that He hears their cries, and just as He loved and cared for Ishmael, He loves and cares for them. I get to play a tiny role in hearing and sharing their stories. My little human heart can feel a fraction of what God feels for them. I can defer the emotion to keep doing the work and plan for my little emotional outletting at some other time, but God doesn't. He hears and feels and loves and responds to cries in real time. He sees and knows the in between spaces, the desert spaces, and hears the people living in them. He provides the well (or maybe the rental house?) when it's needed, and knows better than my worried mind does. He has a plan I don't understand, and I can't see the future, but I can believe Him in his word that He will care for these little people just as he cared and provided for Ishamel.