I feel like I’m sitting on a giant secret and it’s getting bigger all the time… People seem to think that my wife and I are living in Nepal and serving the poor at some almighty ‘cost’ to ourselves, selflessly sacrificing our security, comfort, money and even our wellbeing all for the sake of others. Well they are wrong. Really wrong. In fact the opposite is true. For my wife and I, although at times it is really tough and we miss home terribly, what we have gained in joy and satisfaction from being in community with those that people often tend to only have pity for, has abundantly made up for anything we might have ‘lost’. Let me share with you exactly what we have gained, as we invite you to experience the same.
In my own life, both in Australia and as I have travelled around the world, I have been welcomed into the homes and lives of some of the world’s ‘poorest people’ and time and time again I have been blown away by the generosity, warmth and care that I have encountered. Here is just one of those stories.
How our neighbours saved us
When we moved our entire lives to Nepal just nine months ago, we did so because we were going to ‘help the poor’… or so we thought? So when we finally found a place to live, looked over the fence and realised that there was an entire family of four living in a single concrete room annexed to a buffalo shed that was essentially identical in size and quality to the family’s house, we thought that we had found the first people that we could help. There was just one problem… they were about to beat us to it! No sooner than we had moved the few possessions we had at that time into our house, the mother and daughter were already at our fence with huge smiles and arms stretched out with a dish full of deliciously cooked veggies and a handful of fresh produce straight from their garden (which they rely on selling day-to-day from their small vegetable cart to try and make a living).
And this didn’t stop. Days turned into weeks and the food kept coming. Now at this stage we were still without a fridge or a proper kitchen, which was being built at the time, and so we were completely reliant on others. However, our new neighbours would have been well aware of the fact that given our obvious wealth (our house is at least five times the size of theirs and there is only the two of us with the occasional visitors) that we could have afforded to eat at the plethora of local restaurants and food stalls nearby, but they weren’t prepared to have us rely on that. And that’s when I realised it,
They weren’t just being friendly. They were taking care of us, looking out for our needs and ensuring that we felt welcomed, loved and accepted in our new community.
I can tell you that nothing that anyone else could have possibly done or provided for us would have made us feel any more welcomed or loved than the actions of this single ‘poor’ family.
But wait a moment… Am I not the one with the education, skills and resources that they need? Isn’t the whole reason that I came to Nepal to help them? What’s going on?!
Why do we think that serving the poor always equals sacrifice?
Sadly, this idea of us ‘sacrificing’ boils down to power and the countless ways in which we believe (either consciously or subconsciously) that we are superior to those we are trying to help. Confused? Let me explain.
When we look at the poor, we immediately view them for what they lack: food, education, money, shelter, or health.
Then we say to ourselves something along the lines of, “I see you and I see myself, and it is obvious to me that I have many of the things that you do not have but so desperately need. Thankfully (and luckily for you) I am willing to be generous and to sacrifice some of what I have to give to you.”
Put in such a way, you can see that this is a completely one-way relationship where only one party has something of worth. One is powerful whilst the other is dependent. One is capable whilst the other is incapable. One has things to contribute to the world whilst the other can only ‘receive’.
Now, whether it is this blunt or not, I challenge you to ask yourself, when you see the poor, what is your first reaction? Is it to think, “What can I do for them?” or have you ever imagined, “What can we do for or learn from each other?”
Why you will miss out if you don’t change your thinking
Poverty is not just material. In fact, we in the ‘West’ suffer from poverty in a number of areas in our lives. Many of us struggle as a result of the fast-paced lifestyles that we try to maintain, thanks to workplaces driven by profit and clever marketing aimed at turning us into eternal consumers, never satisfied and always in need of more. As a result of this (whether you have personally bought into this way of living or not) we all suffer from living in a society deeply affected by ‘poverty’ when it comes to those things that are essential for a healthy and balanced life; relationships, time and community. This poverty is having catastrophic effects on our families, environment, and physical and mental health especially.
Whilst I don’t want to romanticise in any way the lives of those living in very real and even extreme material poverty (as some teachings in this vein often do), I do want to hold up those aspects in the lives of the poor that we have something to learn from, namely, the strengths and qualities often forged as a result of being forced to live on the brink of survival: a strong sense of community, perseverance, resourcefulness and thankfulness.
When we fail to realise our own poverty in these areas, we miss out not only on opportunities to learn and grow from the experiences of others but most importantly, the chance to see the many ways in which our desire for wealth, influence and success are trapping us into lives that are less than what we were created to experience.
… And what you are robbing the poor of in the process
When we fail to see the strengths of the poor, or even worse, flat out refuse to allow them to extend to us their own generosity and hospitality because it somehow offends in us the sense that, “Hey, we’re here to help you!” we rob them of something far worse than any tangible thing we can imagine. By not allowing our relationships with the poor to be two-way relationships characterised by both sides learning, growing and benefiting from one another, we are robbing the poor of their dignity and self-respect.
I’ve seen this countless times when we have been treated to lavish feasts in communities that we know are materially poor (even suffering from hunger) and fellow foreigners insist relentlessly on having to pay, much to the discomfort of the community members who have thoughtfully and lovingly made the decision in advance to go without in order to serve us and show their gratitude and generosity.
Whenever I am offered a single thing by a member of the community I live in, or am privileged to visit as part of my work, whether that’s a single biscuit form a little girls grubby hands or a full meal of freshly prepared goat, killed especially for the occasion (this actually happened), I eagerly accept with a huge smile on my face and a genuine thankfulness of heart for their thoughtfulness towards me. And I take a moment to consider what I do miss and sacrifice by being here and not ‘back home’, and I marvel at the fact that despite our differences of language, culture, power and wealth, these people would be willing to love me and to take care of me with exactly what I need.
Question: When have you experienced the unbelievable and unexpected generosity of the poor?