Thursday, March 27, 2014

heroism, poverty and transparency in child sponsorship

If you've been following social media this week, you probably know about the fire storm of response created by World Vision's decision and subsequent un-decision regarding World Vision USA's hiring policy. Absolutely everybody has weighed in on the debate spawned by the two announcements and I don't intend to add one more blog post to the already flaming pile. There is great danger commenting on the dynamics of an organization for which one does not work. Nevertheless, we are closely familiar with World Vision and other child sponsorship organizations having seen their work and impact first hand on the field. What follows is our honest observation, and we welcome any correrction if we are mistaken. 

I almost could have ignored the entire conversation were it not for the persistent stream of comments exposing a very specific point of donor ignorance.

It is unfathomable to me that people would choose to punish and drop the child they sponsor over a difference in doctrine… It's astounding to me that Christians would take food from starving children because a gay person might have helped in getting it there. (

That poor child they are leaving behind sadly does not have a choice to eat, go to school or live a healthy life. (fb comment)

I will continue to advocate for the children around the world who are losing access to vital, elemental needs (like food, healthcare, education, clean water), because a bunch of Christians in America got pissed about an HR decision made in a corporate office. (

 a child’s monthly needs are at stake. (

What does it say about our Faith when our response to a corporate policy change is to kick a needy child in the teeth? (

It's very inhumane to cut off food to a hungry child because you hate gay people. (blog comment)

I fully affirm the concern being expressed for children around the world. God loves children. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Every child deserves clean drinking water and a chance at school. Every one of them deserves security and love. To all those standing on the side of children, BLESS YOU.

Nevertheless, I sense some confusion about the nature of child sponsorship, and I hope this post will clear some things up. The truth of the matter is that no one sponsor is solely responsible for any one child’s life. When a sponsor withdraws support for any reason – change in financial situation, or difference of doctrinal opinion – whatever the reason,fff the withdrawing supporter is NOT kicking a child out of school, taking food out of his mouth, ripping the shirt off his back or sending him out into the streets. 

No, no, no, no, no.

A "dropped" child is not being punished or sentenced to a life of destitute poverty. This is not how child sponsorship works – within World Vision or any other organization that I know of, including my own. Child sponsorship is a JOINT commitment on the part of the generous donor and the coordinating organization. When the organization takes on a child, they commit to provide a certain set of services to that child for a certain period of time – whether or not the donor keeps sending checks with that child’s name on the memo line. Funds for sponsorship are not matched one to one so much as they are pooled together to provide for ALL the children on the sponsorship roster, in addition to a host of non-child-specific activities. As much as it may be a let down to hear, World Vision is not anxiously waiting for your sponsorship check so that when they get it, they make a call to the field staff in Zambia informing them that, Praise the Lord, Mwewa can have dinner tonight!

Large, well-organized, fiscally sound child sponsorship organizations have certain structures assuring that YOU cannot ruin a child’s life. These organizations build into their budget a certain amount of financial margin to allow for fluctuations in donor support. They have in place contingency plans for seasons of drought. And they absolutely have a certain level of professional ethics whereby they are not blithely playing with children’s lives.

To tell donors that children will suffer if individual donors do not continue to give $35 a month is emotionally manipulative. Emotional manipulation is hurtful and wrong. As directors of a small non-profit, Jeremy and I are more or less professionals at working off of a tight budget. We can easily think of about 50 ways that most non-profits, World Vision included could save money (at least in Zambia) without the kids ever noticing. Internal politics, USAID grant restrictions and desirable media campaigns largely dictate to where and to what the dollars are going. Charging the already conflicted donor with the suffering of thousands of poor, needy children world-wide lacks integrity. 

It would seem that the lack of transparency within the sponsorship process has only served to reinforce the savior complex held by many Americans. Many families display their sponsored child’s picture on their fridge as a conversation piece, a reminder to pray, and – dare I say it? – because it makes them feel good about themselves. Is it possible that, in the recesses of our hearts, we actually want to believe that our child will die without us because of how important that makes us feel? And is it possible that the teams for raising millions of dollars to fund all the expenses of a sponsorship program want donors to feel indispensible so that they keep giving? Is it possible that organizations are too intent on garnering support that they “forget” to tell you that the birthday money you sent to Maria actually didn’t go to her?

Are we misappropriating a sense of accomplishment when we feel like we have made a difference in a child’s life? Probably not. Are we misappropriating a sense of accomplishment when we feel like we have single handedly saved a child and revolutionized her community? Probably so.

Self-righteousness is oozing out of the myriad comments expressing this sentiment in a different way:

“I can’t believe that people would leave children in poverty to make a point.”

 Does anyone else feel the slope getting really, really slippery? The question of financial stewardship is not cut and dry. What if we changed that comment to something else:

“I can’t believe that people would leave children in poverty to fuel their starbucks habit.”
 “I can’t believe that people would leave children in poverty to get a manicure once a month.”
“I can’t believe that people would leave children in poverty to buy another pair of shoes.”

If we are going to start throwing stones over $35 a month – regardless of the rationale – we ought to be prepared to account for ALL of our financial decisions. I have a hunch that if we all scrutinized the spending of every $35 increment, the previously felt sense of heroism might start to fade. Truth be told, we pass by the needs of the global poor EVERY DAY in order to satisfy our own preferences. Is withdrawing support because of difference of opinion any more deplorable than not sponsoring more because doing so might cut into the restaurant budget? Maybe, and maybe not. That is for each donor to decide.

Might I suggest that we all take the opportunity created by the World Vision media exposure to both contemplate and commit.

            Who do I give to and why?
            What is my motivation for giving?
            Am I being the best steward possible with what I’ve been given?

            To rejecting every notion that we are Savior.
            To give through an organization but freely and unto the Lord.
            To become informed donors, researching organizational methods and cash flow.

It's true that there is a lot at stake here as the culture war rages on, not the least of which is our own sense of self-importance. Let's leave emotional reactionism by the way-side and have a rational perspective about our importance, our dollars, and those we serve.

Friday, March 14, 2014

we can do better than ban bossy

Rally together a former Secretary of State, social media tycoon, and the most pro-girl organization on the planet: ask them to launch a public service campaign to empower women and what do they come up with? A catchy hashtag accompanied by silly semantics and myriad assumptions, also known as the #banbossy campaign.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, first, really? and second, just take a quick google break to catch up.

You back?

K, great.

As I found myself reading about the initiative around self-esteem, confidence, and leadership, as well as the power-house women spearheading it all, I honestly felt a little embarrassed for the women of the world. Nobody should be bossy – boy or girl – and I think most congenial folks actually agree on that. Furthermore, mature adults aught to have high a enough emotional IQ to discern the difference between a strong leader and a bossy pants. Which leaves me wondering out loud, why is this even a thing?

Most of the bossy girls living along side us in this village are bossy to hide their insecurity. Many of them can’t read. Their chances of contracting HIV are startling high. They will be lucky to live past 45. They will spend their lives in abject poverty. Their role models are fictitious characters on tv. They have never heard the word “bossy” because it doesn’t exist in their language. 

But there is this one girl I know who is particularly bossy. She likes to tell her friends what to do in blunt, one-word sentences. SIT. SING. DANCE. READ. JUMP. GO. COME. She barks her commands with 90% confidence and 10% sass. Her friends put up with her because she is irresistibly cute. This girl is, in many ways, very different from her peers. Her chances of being literate are pretty much 100%. She may even get a PhD. Her parents will never dress her up and send her out to exchange sex for food. Her life expectancy is approximately twice that of her closest friends. I point out her bossiness to her without shame or fear of meddling because, after all, she’s my daughter.

Truthfully, we battle bossy in this house every. single. day. Because as much as my darling daughter needs to know confidence and self-assurance and leadership, those aren’t the only things she needs to know...

She needs to know that not everyone is as privileged as her and that sometimes, like it or not, she needs to give an extra turn to the one who has no toys as all.

She needs to know that “ki mutwe” and other kiddish insults are usually a reflection of a hurting heart, and instead of repaying evil for evil, she can, in all confidence, extend healing grace.

She needs to know that some platitudes are true, like “patience is a virtue,” “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” and “there’s always room for one more at the table, even when it means giving up the last bit of cake.

She needs to know that her meekness is not weakness so much as strength controlled.

She needs to know that she is not the most important person in the universe, and that the One who really is the most important has already secured her worth. No amount of bossy can jeopardize that.

She needs to know that successful assertion of her will is not the best way to ensure a fulfilled life.

If I had been enticed by that oh-so-colorful website into following the #banbossy lead, I would fear not only for my daughter’s character development, but also for her true happiness.

And as for all of my baby’s friends? They too need more than a conversion from bossy to leader. They need math tutors and health care, safe home environments and micro-finance. As I sit in our living room, taking in the juxtaposition of privilege and poverty, filth and fisher price, I scroll on my phone, reading headlines and tweets and I wonder how it is that the leaders of the free world aren't seeing past the end of their own noses.

The hashtag #banbossy is catchy. But so is #ignitethelight, #girlsglow, #kidscare, #sheshares…

It’s just alliteration, savvy internet surfer. Let us not be so easily wooed.


Come now, Sheryl, Condi, Beyonce and friends; why not:


Because what I see walking the bush paths in front of my house, carrying a baby on her back and a load of cassava on her head, waiting embarrassed in an line for birth control, asking someone else to write her name because she can’t – this is reality. And I want my girl, and any who come after her, male or female, to live with eyes seeing outward, learning to put the needs of others before their own, perfecting the art of empathy and forgiveness, not just brushing up on how to be large and in charge.
There are girls all over the world who need so much more than for us to lean in to a flashy media campaign. Can you see them?


Friday, March 7, 2014

crisis and a cross

There was really only one thing to say: “What the heeeeeeyy?”

I said it softly so as not to alarm the otherwise oblivious babe in my arms. But it appeared that hell itself was indeed bubbling over, which made my speech more of a descriptor than an expletive. A swarm of noise and flailing limbs was bowling eastward and towards us. One batch of the rabble was bolting out of the center, another batch running straight into it, and about a thousand people stood dead still, watching with both fear and curiosity. It took about twenty tentative seconds to figure out that a handful of people were rabidly beating a handful of others. Fists were meeting faces with alarming frequency. Crowd “control” (which was kind of a misnomer at this point) rushed onto the scene - men with guns and sticks, beating the beaters. I’m sure there were two sides to the battle, though it was turning into every man for himself. With arms and sticks and feet still flying every which way, an unconscious man was being drug to the side, and reality sunk in. We are bearing witness to death here. The fun and laughter captured in the morning’s selfie quickly dissipated as I asked myself three questions:

What’s the quickest way out without getting trampled?

What kind of parents take their toddler to cultural events where people get beat to death?  

Is she growing up learning to do the same?

I did a quick assessment of our surroundings. Seeing that were sandwiched by three rows of people in front of us and six rows behind us, there was not going to be an easy exit. (I nudged Jeremy, communicating my expectation that he protect Bronwyn first in the case of a stampede.) We had good intentions for being at the Chief’s induction that day. Our presence was a part of being culturally aware and relevant. Men and women of power and influence were gathered there, and we were looking for an opportunity to shake hands in a way that would impact lives. So, yes, I guess we are those parents. But as for that third question, is she growing up learning to do the same: I thought about it then, and I’m thinking about it still.

The mob had been formed by a cohort of disgruntles looking to oust the Chief from his throne and place the woman pictured below, a wanna-be-Chiefteness, upon it. This woman felt so strongly that she deserved to be the one in power, and she convinced her clan to follow her into a fight to the death for it. The man drug out of the rabid mob – I don’t even know which side he was on – but he was thought to be dead and hauled away. (Word was sent out to the villages later that he was only mostly dead, which we all know from Princess Bride means that he was partly alive. Maybe Miracle Max is running the coroners office again? Either way, I don’t expect we’ll see this guy around these parts any more.)

Specifics aside, a death brawl broke out because someone wanted something and was afraid she wasn’t going to get it. I watch different versions of this scenario play out on our playground every single day. Little kids punch each other square in the face over petty offenses and I know they are learning this anger-management technique from the adults in their life. I know that culturally, it is believed here that one’s gain is always another’s loss and losses – loss of a toy, loss of a customer, loss of a title – are always considered devastating and always warrant a fight. Sometime the fight it with fists, sometimes with witchcraft. This is the social order and what keeps people in bondage to their own fear. After the rioters dispersed there at the Chief's palace, the program carried on as if nothing had happened. It almost seemed "normal," and that's what makes me worry. 

Again I question on behalf of My child, the one growing up in the middle of this, how can she not be learning this too???
the inauguration morning selfie. I love her so much.
Without grace, without God's sovereignty, without personal holiness – without a right perspective on who God is and what that means to us, our greatest ally is our fists and the death of another is a worthy exchange for my own security.

In the conversations I have in my head, at night when we are laying in bed and I am watching Bronwyn breathe soft and steady as she lay peaceful and protected between myself and her father, I rehearse the monologue in which I unpack the gospel with respect to all this culture of acceptable beating and even death. How do you say it in kid language?

Everyone is searching for significance. Some are searching for it in power, others in wealth, others in being top-kid at the playground. They fear that if they don’t get what they want, that it means they are nothing. It hurts their hearts so badly, leaves them aching, and they respond to that hurt by hurting others. In desperation, they wound strangers, even friends and family, to get what they feel they are missing. They are willing to even let another person die to make them feel ok. But Jesus fought the fight to end all fighting, he died the death to end all murders. Because He was the most important One of all, and he took the beating so that we wouldn’t have to. He called us special, secure, worthy and made us ALIVE through his DEATH. Amazing, right? He gave us all His specialness so we would never have to fight for our own.

Does that even come close? Is it enough to keep her fists tame and her heart secure? Does it shed light on the Chief’s inauguration day and help her make sense of the flashes of anger we see every day? In this do I hope, and for this do I pray.

 In some sense, I think it might be easier to explain the gospel in this context than in one that is perhaps more subtle. Of course public family feuding accompanied by riotous man-beating is a pretty sharp depiction of depravity… but it is really no more sinful than sending hateful words through an e-mail, posting a snarky comment on twitter, or giving the silent treatment in lieu of forgiveness. Yes, the guy who was knocked senseless and now has no teeth, yes, he needs Jesus. The lady who wanted to badly to be Cheifteness that she started a riot? She needs Jesus too. And don’t we all?

And. Don’t. We. All?

If Bronwyn understands this, she will be saddened, but never surprised by the sin of another, or her own. While we don’t want her to be trampled in a mob at a Chief’s induction ceremony – or any other time – we are strangely ok (perhaps even a bit thankful?) with her encountering the hurts of the world at a young age, because it means that, for her, the cross will stand that much taller. And there’s nothing I want more for her.

My God is so BIG… so strong and so mighty,
There's nothing my God cannot do.