Monday, August 23, 2010

In Bed with a Mosquito

The Bill Gates foundation has spent $456 million to empower African farmers, $355 million to eradicate polio, and $1.5 billion to vaccinate children worldwide.

Compared to this, what can I, an average American, do? Is there something I'm holding on to that I need to let go in order to transform the life of someone else--across town or across the globe? This is a question that was asked and answered by the Salwen family, who has chronicled their experience in the new book "The Power of Half--One Family's Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back."

I have not read the book, but I know enough about the premise and this family's journey to ask myself some interesting questions about my role in making the world a better place for everyone.

The Salwen family was living the super-duper American Dream in Atlanta, Georgia. The mom, dad, and teenage son and daughter had tons of dough and all the things money can buy--including a beautiful and enormous home.

One day Hannah, then 14 years old, looked around and noticed the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, and wanted her family to do something. They were already volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and working at the food bank, as well as writing checks to charities at Christmastime. But Hannah wanted them to do more. When her parent's asked her if she would be willing to give up her home, she called their bluff and answered, "Yes!"

Thus began a series of family conversations that culminated in them selling their home, moving into a home one-half the size, and donating the difference to charity. The family of four spent months educating themselves about the plight of the poor and what their money could do to make a difference. They didn't just talk about issues--they watched videos, participated in the 30-hour famine (a program run by World Vision), interviewed heads of charities, and volunteered at homeless shelters.

Finally, the Salwen's selected the Hunger Project, a non-profit that helps some of the most poverty stricken areas of the world . Their goal is not just to put a band-aid on current problems, but to help create permanent and sustainable solutions. The funds were used in two areas of eastern Ghana--both epicenters received a meeting place, a bank for micro loans, a food storage facility, and a health clinic. They even travelled as a family to Ghana to meet the people who were benefiting from the funds they donated, bringing their project full circle.

The Salwen family bonded over this project. They spent a lot of time together discussing options, asking questions, encouraging each other, challenging long-held opinions about poverty, and becoming more empathetic. Through their journey, they all grasped a vision of a world bigger than themselves.

The Salwen's will be the first to admit that they had more than enough house and moving into a smaller one really wasn't a huge sacrifice. So the moral of their story is not that everyone needs to sell their house and move into one half the size--that is not reasonable or practical for most people.

But their experiment encourages me to ask: could I give up half my TV viewing (sorry, Oprah, 48 Hours Mystery, Fox News, and American Idol) to volunteer to help others in need? Could I give away half the clothes in my closet? What about half the food in my pantry? Half my Starbucks money?

What small, intentional, reductions can my family make in order to improve the lives of others? In the scheme of things, do my small efforts even matter? Maybe the answer is best found in a quote by Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop: "if you think you're too small to make a difference, you've never been in bed with a mosquito!"

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Love and Hate in the Suburbs

I have a complicated, consuming, and often contradictory love-hate relationship with the suburbs.

On one hand, I love living in a city that is well planned, with lots of green space for parks, walking/running/biking trails, a top-notch Aquatic and Recreation Center complete with a spray ground, and zoning that allows family neighborhoods and family-oriented businesses to peacefully co-exist with one another. Coppell is clean, neat, and has some of the most well-manicured medians I've ever seen.

I like our roads--they are nice and smooth and easy to drive over, unlike the ones I grew up with with potholes the size of watermelons and a city that promised to repair them but never found the funds to do so.

The public schools are excellent--some of the best in the state--made so through high property taxes, endless fundraisers, teachers with a commitment to excellence and access to the best educational tools available, and an army of willing and enthusiastic parent volunteers.

There are a dazzling array of activities for children to be involved in--almost every sport imaginable, dance, gymnastics, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, a music conservatory, chess clubs, computer classes, crafting classes, and children's yoga, to name a few. My little city also features multiple preschool programs and even a drop-in child care center. Usually there is no need to leave the city limits to find ways to engage, entertain, and and exercise the bodies and minds of the large population of children who reside here.

The crime rate is very low. I feel very safe walking down the street with my children. Most crimes are property crimes like theft and burglary; violent crime is rare. There are no neighborhoods in Coppell I hesitate to enter because it is a "bad part of town."

So what is not to love about my suburb? Plenty.

If "Keeping up with the Joneses" was an Olympic sport, the collective residents of Coppell could win the gold medal. A missionary returning to America noticed that for many families, a home isn't just a safe and warm place to reside, but is a way for people to make statements to each other about their wealth. I think this sums up what I see as I look around at the majority of homes in the area (Note: I do not exclude my own).

This is a place where people install dazzling crystal chandeliers and flat-screen plasma TVs in their over sized laundry rooms to make the drudgery of washing their families' abundant wardrobes more bearable. Many people engage in "competitive upgrading." If their neighbors and friends get _____________ (marble flooring, artisan custom cabinets, outdoor kitchen with Viking appliances, etc.), there is an immediate feeling of dissatisfaction and calls to their contractors to have same installed in their homes and yards.

Even families with great incomes take out second mortgages and go into consumer debt for more stuff. Often people with homes 3000+ square feet cannot get either car in their garage because it is so stuffed with Christmas decorations, sports paraphernalia, off-season clothes, electronics equipment, or any number of miscellaneous items. Many people solve their "space problem" by going further into debt with a larger home, which is usually eventually filled to the brim once again with new stuff.

There is a lot of "competitive parenting" going on, as well. There is nothing wrong with taking pride in your children's achievements. If Mika and Macy get a good report card, score the lead in the school play, or assist their team in winning the basketball championship, I'm gonna be talking about it!

But it seems that things have gotten completely out of balance. There is an obsession with enrolling each child in multiple activities, excelling in them, talking about them constantly, and sizing up other children based on their skills/abilities relative to their own child. There is a rush to have children not only participating in, but performing masterfully in sports at younger and younger ages and even to "specialize" in a certain sport. I have been subtly warned that having my children less involved than their peers is depriving them of important benefits and experiences. Some say my girls (ages 4 and 6) may even resent me for not giving them the chance to try out every conceivable activity so they can find their "niche" by age eight (or ten at the latest).

Vacations are even competitive. There is so much talk about "where are you going? where are you staying? What activities are you going to do?" It seems as though if there is not a major vacation on the horizon to talk about, a person feels left out of many conversations. I even heard one mom remark that "even though we are deeply in debt and can't afford it, we are going to take a family vacation this summer. I can't stand the thought of my children going back to school in the Fall and being embarrassed and ashamed when asked where they went on vacation, and they have to say they stayed home."

My primary concern in making these observations about myself and some of my fellow suburbanites is to focus on where our hearts are. Let me be clear: I'm NOT saying there is anything wrong with a spacious, well-decorated home, a nice vacation, or children's involvement in extra-curricular activities. However, I have noticed that in our own family, when all our finances and all our time are completely absorbed with these things, we have fewer resources with which to bless and serve others and scant time for spiritual development.

I question whether I am giving my children every "worldly" advantage that comes from a generous salary, a lovely home filled with toys, electronics, and closets stuffed with clothes, top-rated schools, and multiple physical/academic/developmental/musical enrichment opportunities, while neglecting other things, such as a heart for others less fortunate, compassion, humility, respect, and a desire to love and serve God? I give the latter a lot of lip service, but my time, money, and best efforts naturally tend to gravitate towards the former.

It is HARD to live a balanced life in Coppell; it is a struggle for me every day! I hear conflicting voices in my head: "buy me!" "you need this to be happy!" "you and your family deserve the best!" And then there is the voice of Jesus, who gently whispers to my spirit, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you." (Matthew 6:33)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Feed the hungry--one at a time

"Where de hungry people, mama?" My then three-year old daughter walked tirelessly through the retirement apartment complex looking for the elderly who I told her would not have lunch unless we brought them food.

Meals on Wheels has been a great avenue to teach my girls about feeding the hungry. For little ones, it packs more punch than writing a check to a hunger relief agency or donating canned food to a food pantry (although both are important, as well!) Having my daughters help me deliver meals puts "flesh" on the face of hunger.

I want my girls to know that they CAN do something about world hunger, even at their age. It is so easy to get discouraged about the massive, global scale of malnutrition, starvation, and other hunger related issues that we think our small efforts could not possibly make a difference. But Mother Teresa wisely said, "if you can't feed 100 hungry people, than feed one."

Mother Teresa also remarked that "the most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved." I remind my girls that for many of the people on our route, we are the only human contact they will have all day long. I tell them, "Give our Meals on Wheels friends a big smile and make them feel special, because they're valuable to God."

As Mika and Macy gingerly place a fresh-cooked meal in the hands of an elderly shut-in and match her wrinkled smile with one of their own, I say a silent prayer that their little hearts will be tenderized to serve others who are hungry--physically, relationally, and spiritually.

For information about volunteering with Meals on Wheels, contact: Dallas area: Betsy Cox 214-689-2639

Other areas: see and enter your city/state to find a local group