Ugandan faith lesson #3: give from substance, not abundance

Faith lessons from my Ugandan family

Editor’s note: This is the third blog post in a five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family” by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda (learn from lessons #1 and #2). Stay tuned throughout this week to experience the next two installments of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.

Electricity can be elusive in Uganda.

The country’s power grid is both incomplete and unreliable. When I lived there in 2006, access to power shifted from region-to-region in a process called “load-shedding.”  This means those lucky enough to be connected to the grid only had power about 50 percent of the time—a reality that was at best a nuisance but could be downright life-threatening (as people living with HIV couldn’t refrigerate their antiretroviral medication).

My host dad’s computer work was repeatedly disrupted by power outages (scheduled and unscheduled), which made for slow and frustrating progress. Once, after yet another unexpected outage, he confided in me that he dreamed of installing a solar panel on top of his house. (Solar energy is becoming an increasingly popular alternative for Africans who wish to shed their dependence upon an inherently undependable source: the government-supplied power grid.)

Ugandan family at water well
Ugandan family at water well

My host dad had researched the costs associated with obtaining a solar panel for his home, and it was within his grasp … Or, at least, it could have been. “But,” he told me, without an ounce of regret, “Not all of my siblings have made it through secondary school yet, so I must put their need for education ahead of my desire for electricity.”

I was floored.

I understood that Jesus expects us to give from our substance and not our abundance, but I had never before stopped to consider just how many things in my privileged life I considered to be substance which were, in reality, abundance. Things like electricity.

Ugandan UNICEF feeding station
Ugandan unicef feeding station

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4)

How is Jesus calling me to live out His radical generosity?

I know there is no single “right” answer to this question … But, having witnessed poverty so abject as to be dehumanizing, right alongside generosity so self-sacrificing as to be miraculous, I also know that I can never, never stop asking it.

For reflection: What “necessities” could I give up in order to better live out Jesus’ call to radical generosity, especially in the face of so many unmet needs across the world?

Author bio: Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She spent three months living and volunteering in Mbale, Uganda in 2006, and recently returned with her husband to visit her host family and friends. She is happy to report that her host family now has a solar panel for their house, so that they rarely have to rely on government-supplied power.

French braiding my way to a holier Lent

Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge

I am trying to teach myself how to French braid hair. As the mother of two daughters, one of whom was able to donate 10+ inches of hair at age three (with pigtails to spare), I feel that mastering this skill now is a savvy investment in my future time management.

My first attempt at a French braid several months ago was pathetic. Upon seeing herself in the mirror, even my four-year-old felt the need to be gentle with my ego, reassuring me in a Daniel Tiger-inspired pep talk: “Well, it’s not the best … But keep tryin’!  You’ll get better!”

She was right, of course. After months of disastrous braiding attempts, I can now send my daughter to school with her hair in a style that is (if not quite red carpet-ready) at least identifiable as a French braid.

Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge

It occurred to me, while doing my daughter’s hair on Ash Wednesday, that a French braid is a pretty good metaphor for the Lenten spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Throughout Lent we are meant to attend specifically to these three “strands” of holiness; weaving them together, bolstering each one as we proceed. They should be united in a tight, well-ordered plait. If we neglect any one of them—if, for example, we fast but do not pray—then our Lenten braid is lumpy and uneven.

My Lenten braids are always lumpy; at times, they are so disheveled as to be unidentifiable. I tend to begin Lent with lofty expectations of my imminent spiritual accomplishments, only to be disappointed by the reality of my own clumsiness. I usually have to “start over” at least once before the end of February.

But, just like French braiding, the more time I spend attempting to fast, pray, and give alms, the easier it is to do so … and the more natural it feels to integrate one into the other, weaving them together.

Though fasting is only one-third of the equation, it’s typically the “celebrity” pillar of Lent. In past years, I have taken the path that Pope Francis advocates: fasting from a specific uncharitable attitude or behavior. This year, though, I wanted to try to assume those fasts of the soul into a more traditional fast of the body: specifically, abstaining from alcohol.

As I politely decline a glass of wine with dinner, I am reminded to say a prayer of thanksgiving for all the necessities and luxuries I can enjoy this day, and—before bed—I donate the cost of a drink to charity. In researching the charity to which I wish to donate today, my mind and heart are opened to the multitude of crosses that others bear, and the multitude of ways in which I could train my fingers to better be the hands of Christ in easing their burdens.

I fumble; I fail; I begin again. The more I practice, the tighter the strands become.

By the end of Lent, I emerge with a braid: imperfect and unglamorous, but nonetheless beautiful in God’s eyes.

Nicole Steele Wooldridge writes from the Seattle, Washington area, where she is attempting to teach herself some basic middle-school skills. Next up: sewing on a button.

 

 

Clothing bales and hurting more than we help

Several years ago, I had an opportunity to tour a recycling center.

Much about my visit was interesting, but what I still remember most vividly are the giant clothing bales.

Photo Credit: http://www.fashioneditoratlarge.com/2014/07/five-thoughts-secret-life-clothes-obroni-wawu/

During the tour it was explained to us that not all of the clothing we donate to thrift shops is redistributed locally; some is shipped abroad and sold at markets to people who are poor.

I remember being surprised by this news … but then I basically thought “Well, that’s good. I want people to have clothes.”

Some time after the tour, I lived abroad in a developing country. I met people who were wearing t-shirts with slogans related to ordinary things in the United States, like little league teams and sandwich shops. I asked about how they got their shirts and they said they had purchased them at the market. They picked out the shirt because they liked the color, but didn’t know what the designs or words were really about.

I began to have questions about this global phenomenon but, even so, I kept on thinking things like “One’s person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” And, upon my return to the U.S., I continued to donate to Goodwill and similar shops, well aware that many of my donations weren’t going to help people locally.

I was reminded of all this last week when I was fortunate to view the film Poverty, Inc. with a great crowd of concerned citizens here in La Crosse. (Find out if the film is going to be screened at a theatre near you here.)

Poverty, Inc. is incredibly thought-provoking; challenging many of my ingrained assumptions about the effective ways to help people.  Although, to quote a concept in the film, I believe I am basically a person that has “a heart for the poor and a mind for the poor” and tend to be careful about what sort of charities I donate to, I realize I still have some embarrassing assumptions about poverty and other people.

Back to the clothing bales, I suppose I assumed the reason people need our old clothing to be sold at markets is they didn’t have the means to fabricate garments locally. So, when a woman from Kenya was interviewed in the film and spoke about how several decades ago the shops there sold clothes with the label “made in Kenya” and there were many thriving cotton farms, I was disturbed.

As explained in an article published in The Guardian, the policies of World Bank are to blame for the fact that Kenya’s textile industry has been in decline since the 1980s. Kenyan manufacturers can’t compete with our cheap second-hand clothing, in the same way that other local businesses are frequently unable to compete with free goods (like TOMS shoes) that are flooded into developing economies. This is one of many examples of how the current global aid system keeps people poor.

Even with our good intentions and values, often times we are hurting others more than we are helping them.

Undoubtedly, the system is complex. Poverty, Inc. did not present any easy solutions because there aren’t any. I gained more consciousness about globalization, poverty, and structures that perpetuate inequality. I left with more questions than answers. The film highlights that what is lacking in the current aid system is “the ladder out of poverty” including access to the rule of law for the ordinary person, a simple infrastructure to set up and manage a business, and so on.

As people of faith, we have a duty to be mindful about how our actions impact others. We must be thoughtful, charitable people. We must be focused on justice as we work for peace and the protection of the dignity of every person.

We must keep in mind the words of Jesus.

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” –Luke 6:31

““You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” –Matthew 22:37-40

As I continue to pray and discover ways to advocate for just changes, I will remain supportive to the NGOs and charities that promote the dignity of those who are poor and offer support to people as they emerge from poverty–organizations like Heifer Project International and Catholic Relief Services. I continue to believe it is important to provide food to people when they are hungry as well as to help them gain the stability and skills to feed themselves.

And so, instead of donating clothing to charities that may gather it up into giant bundles to be sent to developing countries, I will work to reduce my consumption and keep my former goods within the local economy. More clothing will go to my neighbor who might understand the t-shirt slogans, the bales will get smaller and the African woman can once again take pride in labels that say “Made in Kenya.”

Then, hopefully, I will be truly be helping people near and far.

Craving a countercultural Christmas

My Christmas Every Day experiment is starting to get awkward.

Advent hasn’t even started yet, but Christmas’ crazed and over-weight relative Consumerism is already in town, on the news, and wasting your gasoline and money as he drives all around town shopping.

Meanwhile, I’m crowding with others in the cozy chapel, savoring peace and quiet and adoring God’s goodness while we pray for wisdom about how to revive radical Gospel living.

My Christmas ever day experiment is not about Santas, shopping, or catchy commercials. Yet, while these things become more prevalent, I am becoming afraid that any uttering of “Merry Christmas” that I make might be mistaken for an approval of the petty parts of the holiday happening prematurely. The truth is that I really do not approve of any Christmas consumerism or other commotion that distracts from Jesus Christ.

Last week one one of my students innocently asked me a very normal question.  He poked his head through my classroom door while he waited for his bus after school.  “Sister,” he said “are you going shopping on Black Friday?”  He was probably trying to spark a conversation.

I was impolite. “Ha, that might be one of the funniest questions I have been asked all year! Why would you ever think I would do that!?”  I honestly thought he was joking.

Of course, it only occurred to me much later that the student was asking a very ordinary, culturally appropriate question.  And, I realized, my response may have seemed a bit uncultured, bizarre or down-right rude. (God have mercy!)

I shuddered with shame as I realized my insensitivity.  The thing is, the kid pushed my button. I assumed the student knew me and that I am trying to live a counter-cultural life, understood all my values, and in spite of his youth, he was already dissecting the cultural norms that conflict with Christianity.  He’s a smart kid— so, fair mistake, right?!

All of the emphasis on materialism this time of year really does make me squirm.  I am pretty sure I saw my first Christmas commercial that reminded people about layaway back in September.  I probably could have given out Christmas candy for Halloween, if only I had I asked a shopkeeper for some, since candy canes appeared on the shelves right on November 1st.  And now, even though we’re still in November, jolly Christmas carols seem to be chiming through speakers all around town trying to get us in the mood to shop, shop, shop.  I even heard a radio show host joking about how Christmas already came and went, since it happens around Veteran’s Day now.

If holiday seasons are supposed to stick to a schedule, we have reasons to be disturbed.

Or, more importantly, when we remember what Christmas is really all about, we have reasons to resist.

Christmas everyday, and Christmas in general, is all about celebrating the Incarnation.  Love was made manifest in human flesh. Jesus Christ is God and God came to earth in the most humble and simple of ways. There’s generosity, joy, community, peace, trust, lots of love and pure, human fun wrapped up in the real meaning of  the ancient story of Christ’s coming:

This is the type of Christmas I am craving and I am committed to carrying out through the end of 2013: a counter-cultural and communal Christ-centered celebration! I hope you would join me, even though I’ll admit it’s much easier to talk about these ideas than to do them, when consumerism’s temptations are around every corner.

Here’s how:

  • Collecting donations for anyone who needs anything: some of my students hosted a food drive last week and will host another one in December.
  • Honoring children: I am eager to spend time with my godchildren and if anyone asks me what I want for Christmas I’m ready to tell them that I want donations to Tubman House for Christmas.
  • Praying for peace: several times a day, especially during my assigned adoration hours.
  • Connecting to the tough parts in the Christmas story: advocating for immigration reform and standing up for anyone who is oppressed by violence.
  • Spreading the Love: telling teens that they matter and I care about them, writing letters and cards, and being intentional about how I spend time with others.
  • Hosting some celebrations : a Christmas party in my classroom on behalf of the orphans at Casa Hogar and hopefully hosting a gathering with other friends.
  • Getting creative about how I give presents: re-gifting, buying things at thrift stores, making DIY crafts  out of stuff I have around home, utilizing some of the resources from “Buy Nothing Christmas” and baking goodies to share.
  • Resisting Black Friday: I shall instead celebrate Buy Nothing Day and I’m thinking about joining in on a protest, fast, or at least I’ll send a message of support to those who protest for just wages.

What will you do to resist Christmas’ consumerism and focus on the real reasons for the season?

Zenta 2013, Buy Nothing Day, Adbusters

Merry Christmas everyone!!