Poverty, Missions, Disability or HOW THE HECK did we get here?

I am reading several excellent books on Poverty as part of my employment journey (This is something I have wanted to do for a while!).  Part of the one book involves a lot of reflection and some of it I am going to post.

The book argues that good intentions are not enough and that most middle-class American white people rather motivated by religious obligation or compassion have a bit of a God-complex.  The book also argues that most people misunderstand poverty dramatically, they don’t understand that material poverty (what people think of) is really a symptom of REAL kinds poverty: poverty of community (broken relationships), poverty of spiritual intimacy (materialism, idols), poverty of stewardship (loss of purpose, laziness/workaholics, materialism), poverty of being (low self-esteem or God complexes).

I have been reading through my journals of growing up, trying to find out a little bit of HOW I got here.  How did a 18 yo who wanted to be a clinical geneticist and a disability rights activist decide she wanted to to move to Africa?  This is related to one of the questions I am working through in the poverty book which is WHY DO I WANT TO WORK WITH UNDERSERVED FOLKS?  I think this question is slightly different for me than the average. While growing up in a supportive home where charity and generosity were encouraged especially in regards to faith. I did not grow up with this huge ambition to save the world nor did I grow up with this idea of giving people what they did not have materially. Nor did I go to Romania with this idea that I had all the answers or I was essential to making a difference (God Complex). I came in after fighting for wheelchair ramps and writing papers about civil rights. I wanted to make a difference for my people, my tribe because we were the SAME, not because were DIFFERENT (i.e. I was somehow better).  I went to Romania at 19 because I was horrified at the treatment of children who I saw as by chance could have been me.  Perhaps I did have a bit of a God-complex in that I thought that by being example of a independent disabled woman I could make a difference but I think it was a really different sort then is described most commonly in the book.It wasn’t really entitlement that was driving me, or even good intentions, it was true empathy (perhaps misplaced). I only had a taste of what prejudice and fear of disability felt like, but I knew the bitterness of its lie by experience not by pity or good intentions.

I also think that I am viewed really different by the people receiving me which is another thing the book really emphasizes.  There was never a US (the helpers), THEM (needy) model for me because in the eyes of the average Romanian, I was in the NEEDY category (ie when the beggars help you off the bus and give you the money they made from begging…all the rich American-ness in the world isn’t going to pull you up the social ladder).  I lived strangely in between the two worlds. Did I do harm? Did I reenforce poverty?

I actually think I did OK for the average disabled person I worked with although maybe only by the grace of God.  I think I listened to a lot of stories and I know that parents especially found it encouraging to see someone with a disability not in an institution. I never claimed it was all easy or that there life would be just like mine either. I also think where I did the best was by just being there walking around, greeting the disabled beggars on the subway and such, I didn’t really do anything other than acknowledge that there were a human being. I think that I quickly learned how to talk about principals (justice, access, education, etc) in ways that were empowering, opposed to bragging about what I had or being critical, I think Laura my mentor for this. I also think  I managed not to be always right and be ok with that which is HUGE.

The mistakes I made were when I tried to go beyond the realm of disability which I think is really interesting in light of the book. For example, I bought shoes for the child I taught how to walk one summer.  While I might have helped the one child, how did the other children feel and how did the care givers feel?  Did I reenforce their shame (Poverty of Being)?  Probably. I don’t think I had any idea especially at 19 how to handle the shear material gap of the suffering I saw and I certainly don’t think I really understood that it was a symptom rather than the problem.

I do defend my psychological state a bit, if you had blue eyes and you went to a country where you visited a room where nearly all the blue eyed children were literally tied to their beds because they had blue eyes….and one of them you could help be allowed to not be tied down, if you could help him walk safely with well fitting shoes, you’d buy the shoes too.  Its hard, I think on the one hand, its a beautiful gift to be able to have a bridge of empathy to the other side, on the other hand, its really hard to overcome the empathy and make decisions that reflect solid community development and not out of the pain it is to see someone suffer and know that the only thing that saved you from this fate is your passport.  The book doesn’t talk about this because its rare to be in the middle, I live a very strange life.

Where I really related to the book, I think though there is NO doubt that the Romanians and the Belorussians especially those first two summers lifted me from my poverty. I don’t think I will ever be able to fully articulate how much life formation went into those 18 weeks of my life.  I learned more spiritually from sitting at the feet of a gnarled, elderly lady with CP who gets to go to church twice a year when someone carries her to the van than I would say in nearly all of my spiritual education up to that point.  There was no theological debate, no political spectacle or bitterness, nor even was their the allure of like minded community, there was her God, beauty, boldness and gratitude. It rocked my faith, it shaped me.  Two children changed the way I thought of myself self-esteem wise (poverty of being): one an autistic teenage girl who threw things at me the first day I met but by week six, sat in my lap, with her hand on my heart.  I realized how much fear she had of people because its all she had known from them.  While her front was behavioral, mine was in trusting in relationships and striving for perfection (because if I am better than everyone else, they can’t judge my differences). It was the same fear. She broke me and while I still struggle in this area, she is who opened my eyes to it.

The second child is the child I bought the shoes for. A child who has a disease that literally shares the same gene mine does who went blind not for lack of resources (the specialist he needed was less than 5 miles from his home) but from indifference. After his blindness, he literally withdrew into himself and regressed, he no longer walked or fed himself.  We walked together for a summer. I had to walk about a mile to get to him and I was often exhausted and I leaned on the wall while he leaned on me but we got there. Not by anything I did right but because we both wanted it so badly.  He taught me to give up my independence which was probably the biggest idol in my young adult disability world, my most treasured possession.  Interdependence is not something taught in the American system and that is our poverty of community.

Then there is Africa and frankly it all gets a whole lot more complicated. Again, disability wise I think I did mostly OK, I treated people as humans. I wasn’t quite the pariah that I was in Eastern Europe, largely because I was white and thus always separate first although I did have some tender moments of same-ness with several disabled young women and some parents.  I think where I am really struggling is with how to be a physician and play the development game.  Being a physician means I have a highly prized set of skills, I can save babies (sometimes) and not just disabled babies. Suddenly, I can’t just GO to walk along side my tribe, suddenly he expectation is that I am a helper.  How do I not help when the stakes are so high but how to help and not hurt?


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