Friday, July 24, 2015

why it's worth thinking about shoeboxes in July

It’s Christmas in July – so we’re gonna roll with it.

So alllll the way back in Nov and December (yes, I’ve been thinking abut this well on half a year,) I found myself chatting with a good number of folks about Operation Christmas Child. If you’ve never heard of Operation Christmas Child (OCC), this post might be a little irrelevant, but I’ll still explain that OCC is a ministry of Samaritans Purse, which distributes gift-filled shoe boxes to needy children in more than 100 countries. The children receiving the shoe boxes are given a gospel presentation and invited to learn more.  

Many of the conversations I had this past winter were with Christians, genuinely interested in my perspective on OCC and its operations. Because mobilization for church-wide, participatory events like OCC happen well in advance, this conversation is almost perennially relevant; and with thousands of Churches getting in on the action, I am glad that the people around me are asking thoughtful questions about best practices and methodology.

The truth is, I love that Operation Christmas Child is so effective at mobilizing first-world Christians on behalf of the global poor. I love that whole churches rally and do something not-selfish at this super-selfish time of year. I love that whole families get involved, from the box-prep to the shopping to the letter writing to the shipping. (My own family did this too when I was growing up!) I love that American kids are given the opportunity to leave the “give me, give me!” bubble and think about poverty and injustice. I love the heart of wanting to reach the world’s little ones with Good News.


But… (Oh, you knew there was a but coming…)

But then April happened and the love started to wane. It was in April that Jeremy was preparing for the regional pastors conference that we were hosting. We had invited a visiting lecturer from America to come and teach and had spent boku bucks getting everything ready for the nearly 100 pastors that were registered to attend… And then… the day before the conference started, Operation Christmas Child reps showed up in the town nearest us and announced to all of the pastors of the region that they were needed in order to distribute several thousand shoe boxes. (Christmas shoe boxes… in April… whatev.) This untimely maneuver jacked from us about two thirds of our conference attendees. Thanks, Christian ministry, for stepping all over a brothers toes.

Christians wrecking a pastors conference felt a little more than “untimely and discourteous” and I went all whistle blower in front of my laptop because, by  gum, I have words.

I’ve long held back my true feelings about OCC, but April’s distasteful situation begged for at least a little stirring of the pot. I seriously considered: what with over 10 million shoe boxes expected to go out this year, I can’t help but think about just how many of my friends and family are invested in OCC, and how many of them want to do good, and not harm, for the name of Christ in the world.  

Thankfully, Christmas in July is a thing in this country, so I’ll take this opportunity to just come right out and say it: I’m deeply uncomfortable with the mashup of Christmas presents and the gospel. My complaint is simplistic, but I think its significant enough to warrant rethinking at least something about those 10 million shoe boxes.

I know many Christians wrestle with our culture’s gift obsession at Christmas time. We are celebrating Christ’s birth, the coming of the Redeemer, Emmanuel, God with us, and somehow that gets translated practically into gimme gimme gimme shop shop shop buy buy buy consume hoard overload and what have you. The central figure of the season is not a baby in a manger but boxes under a tree – a reality which makes us all feel uncomfortable, and yet at the same time we do little more than give “Jesus is the reasons for the season” posters a bit of real estate in our front yards.

We don’t like it, we wring our hands over it, and still, we export it. Operation Christmas Child. I heard it many times as a young girl – “Think of all those poor children out there who aren’t getting anything for Christmas!” I pictured sad looking children sitting on the floor on Christmas day, longing for a present to unwrap. I was taught to be particularly grateful for the material goods in my life. I simply figured that one could not be happy without the stuff. And I learned to pity those without it.

 I think many of us in the Western world have been led to believe that the equation of more presents equals happiness is an absolute truth. No stuff, no happy. Materialism is the air we breathe and it is no surprise that it has worked its way into the way we do ministry.

If I take the gift idea a step further though – out of the realm of the materialistic world-view and into the practical, I have to ask a simplistic question: Why does the third world need boxes of trinkets and doo-dads anyway? I mean, apart from their inherent and existential happiness, WHY do all the little children of the world so desperately need the contents of those boxes such that we’ve elevated their importance to the level of dying people relief rations. When I think about the things I used to pack in my childhood OCC box – socks, pencils, cheepo-toys, I realize all of those things can be purchased in the Mansa market, for a fraction of the cost and without the $7 shipping. And speaking of cheepo toys, I think at least some American box senders need to repent on this one. Remember when we talked about “betterthan nothing” being euphemism for crap? Mhhm. Case. In. Point. I read a Washington Post article not long ago advising moms who are tired of all the junkety junk their kids bring home from birthday parties to take half those unwanted party favors and shove them in an Operation Christmas Child Box. (I was loving the article until I to to #8... and then I threw up a little in my mouth.)

So we export Christmas-time materialism in the form of stocking stuffers, misrepresenting it as useful aid, and then what? We bait it on a hook and lure kids in to get them to listen to a gospel presentation. We’ve witnessed enough give-aways in Fimpulu and surrounding villages to know that “free stuff” has an almost irresistible effect on people of all ages. It doesn’t even matter what it is; poverty mentality hypnotically drives people to go to do whatever it takes to get the “free stuff,” and OCC capitalizes on that dynamic.

we had to learn the hard way that even silly little things - if given for free free - can create a frenzy
When “stuff” is on the line, people have learned to do and say whatever is necessary to assure that they are the beneficiaries of the stuff-giving program. Raise my hand and ask lots of questions? I can do that! Check a box? Sure thing! Say a prayer? Join a Bible study? Well, why not? OCC-ers may never say, “IF you accept Jesus we will give you presents.” But I don’t think they have to. The linkage is made the moment those boxes come through the door and that’s motivation enough to “get saved” as many times as is necessary to make sure they miss out on no good thing.

Deeper and deeper does this drive the momentum of the prosperity gospel across Africa, saying again and again in kid-friendly ways that the more they say yes to Jesus, the more they can expect shiny objects to appear in front of them.

Is the distraction of the presents really enough to distort the gospel and diminish Jesus’ position as the true and lasting gift? I’d wager that yes, or at least a really strobg maybe. I don’t think it is OCC’s fault, but, in our observation, this is how at least a Zambian village works. I blame the confluence of the NGO culture and the poverty culture and the aid culture butting up against the Christian culture, and suddenly all that stuff we hear preached in village churches about keeping God happy and expecting piles of good stuff makes a painful amount of sense.

Herein lies the truest danger of the shoe boxes, the subtle communication that God barters material presents for external agreement, void of repentance, reconciliation and relationship. And when the stuff stops appearing and the temptations of real life send a person searching, its all to easy to drop the Christian gig and return to familiar animism Because if God is the giver of stuff and the stuff aint comin’ then obviously God has abandoned me and I’m going back to what I know to be true.

Would it be worth sending something other than trinkets in a box maybe? Schools or clinics or human resources maybe? Just maybe?

Feel free to keep the conversation going. What’s your take?

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

everything I know about breastfeeding, I learned from black women

Somewhere along the way in my breastfeeding journey, I learned that African American women are less likely to initiate breastfeeding and also less likely to continue beyond six months as compared with their Caucasian counterparts. Reasons for this include lack of breastfeeding education and varied levels of support. Several researchers believe, however, that the greatest discouragement of black women in America with regard to breastfeeding is the lack of visible role models. Many observe that black women breastfeeding in public and in mainstream media are too few to encourage normalization of breastfeeding within the African American community.

Given my overwhelmingly positive experience with breastfeeding, this data truly makes me sad and I wish there was something I could do to encourage my black sisters here in the US. I understand that black women in Zambia and black women in America are worlds apart geographically, culturally and socially. Nevertheless, I still feel the need to acknowledge that it is my black neighbors who have taught me everything I know about breastfeeding.

While the postpartum nurses had taught me the technical stuff - holds and latches and the like - I left the hospital completely unprepared for the cultural challenges of nursing, and I spent my first few months uncertain and embarrassed. American moms, I know you feel me - this can be a rough place to be a nursing mother, and the constant strategizing wore my out. (Maybe I'm a wimp, but this is my story.)

So anyway. After a very awkward start in America, I needed a reeducation in the finer points of breastfeeding, and Zambia was the perfect place for just that. A far cry from all of the intrigue surrounding breastfeeding in the States, my Zambian friends eliminated every bit of my angst by sending a refreshingly different message.

This one time, back in Fimpulu, I was standing in line at the growth monitoring clinic, waiting to put my then three month old baby into the swing, anxious to see, along with all the other mothers, how much my chub had gained in the last month. There are usually a hundred or so women at these clinics, feeding babies and chasing toddlers, wiping their brows because it’s hella hot, but still smiling happily for the excuse to get together with everyone and dish. 

The clinics are run both by nurses and community volunteers who take on a variety of roles. One such volunteer was a well-known grandmother who was working the crowd, greeting the moms and kissing the kiddos. At one point, she came up to me and took her time squishing Bronwyn’s thighs, poking her baby muffin top and pinching her sweet cheeks. Then she looked at me, and without any reservation, cupped my left boob and said, “Bethany. Your breasts are AWESOME!”

I cracked up for a short eternity and eventually said, “Thank you,” because… what else was I supposed to say?

I heard her message and took it to heart: Your breasts are awesome. As in, fearfully and wonderfully made kind of awesome. Engineered for a purpose, the feeding of your babies.

The radically un-American message started here, and only got better. Throughout the months and then years, the ZamMamas continued to speak and I continued to listen:

Breastfeeding is not an “issue.” It’s not a “debate.” This is how we feed our children. End of story. No hoo-pla-pla needed. The sun rises and sets; its funny when people trip; and breastfeeding is normal. These are just facts.

This is how we love our children. Tears? Mommy’s milk. Sad? Mommy’s milk. Tired? Hurt? Bored? Frustrated? Lonely? Over stimulated? Mommy’s milk. This is not spoiling them. It is meeting their needs, in a tender and loving way. And it works.

netball champ and breastfeeding mama. work it girl. 
This is how we keep them quiet. Church ladies, BUST ‘EM OUT because the pastor is preaching and we don’t want noise so shove a boob in it. (The church secretary at one of the churches we attend said this verbatim. I could not possibly be making this up. “Shove a boob in it,” he said. It was fantastic.)

18 month old Promise should win an award for that latch.
This is the cornerstone of their early development. (I don’t think most of my neighbor ladies understand fully all of the physical and cognitive benefits associated with breastfeeding. What they do know is that their children follow the recommended growth curve and don’t get sick and develop perfectly… that is, until they stop breastfeeding. Zambian mothers all know that Mommy’s milk is magical and therefore work to pump as much of it into their bubs as they can, while they can.)

Kids wean when they are ready. And they all do eventually. It is impossible to nurse a child too long. 

this is the 8th Kalobwe baby. 

Breastfeeding is a communal event. (This one time, I was driving a group of ladies to town in the Land Rover and Bronwyn started crying in her car seat. The ladies in the back were frantically trying to unstrap her and give her to me, expecting that I could nurse her WHILE I WAS DRIVING. They freaked out when I said I couldn’t manage to drive stick shift and nurse a baby simultaneously and made me pull over to top her up before finishing the trip. I worried out loud that we would be late but they insisted I feed her anyway. THAT is breastfeeding support.)

Just be free. Dudes can handle this. (My neighbor guys are living proof that breast obsession (à la America) is cultural, and not biological. When the baby fusses and takes forever to latch, the Zambian men don’t panic and divert heir eyes. When a mom forgets to put it away after finishing nursing, no one blinks. When baby starts rooting, moms do not cover, run or hide. The first time a man came to say hi to us while I was nursing, he distracted Bronwyn, causing her to unlatch and leaving me all kinds of exposed. And what do you know, our guy friend didn’t bat an eye even though his face was about two inches from my whiter than white boob. He just kept talking to Bronwyn like it was no big thing, because apparently it’s not, and suddenly, I was free.)

check out this group of breastfeeding advocates - men and women. and their colostrum poster. love.
Breastfeeding is not a white person thing or a black person thing. It’s not a rich person thing or a poor person thing. It’s a human nurture thing. Unless medically necessary, and without extenuating circumstances, (see point #1 of this perfect article) why give your baby less than the best?

This is not a political issue. It’s not a moral or religious one. It’s a health issue. Moms don’t do this because all their friends are doing it, or to make a statement or to be a revolutionary or for any other reason than because they staunchly believe that Mommy milk is AWESOME.

hopefully my daughters are internalizing these messages too.
Breastfeeding might possibly be my favorite part of parenting. It’s the one thing that I alone can do for my babes. Grandma and Grandpa will spoil them. Siblings will entertain them. Teachers will educate them. But for as long as the breastfeeding days last, MOM is the only one that can supply that liquid love. Mom is the only one who smells that good and whose chest is that warm and whose num-nums can solve all the problems of the world. For the length of those breastfeeding days, mom is hero and no amount of cultural silliness should deny her that privilege.

I know my Zambian friends feel the same. Their enduring support of me in my own breastfeeding journey, even with my blindingly white boobs in a sea of dark ones, has shown me that the nursing world has the ability to be the most inclusive community on the planet.

And all the suckling babies say, “Amen.”


[a loving post script]:

Several of my closest friends have been unable to breastfeed for legitimate and heartbreaking reasons. It reminds me that sometimes words like "breast is best" can cause unintended pain. I'm proud of my friends for caring so much about their children's wellbeing, and for doing what's best for the whole family, even if that means not breastfeeding - especially when that has been hard. To the moms who aren't able to breastfeed and yet support breastfeeding anyway - you're tops in my book. thank you.