Am I too comfortable?

Am I too comfortable?

These are my own reflections and may not reflect the opinion of the SIA Board of Directors:

Sometimes praying for peace can seem like the easy way out. Picturing myself in the flow of life, as a Being of light, I feel the peace within me. But those prayers, I am increasingly realizing, are coming from a place of comfort, from a comfortable life.

Around New Year’s I was faced with a slightly unsettling question from Kayla McClurg in her inward/outward email reflection, “Will this be the year we move from ‘wishing for a nicer world’ to making intentional contributions and distributions of light?”

Is now the time to go from wishing and even praying towards making some concrete steps and intentional contributions to justice in the world?

That might be uncomfortable. It might shake me out of my peaceful prayer.

Philanthropy and charity can get pretty comfortable in its work to address the immediate needs of food, clothing, clean water. In that rush, it may never get to confronting the systems that are creating the poverty and inequality.

In an opinion piece in the New York Times Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, writes about giving to charities during the holiday season, “I worry that through these acts of kindness, I absolve myself of asking deeper questions about injustice and inequality. We Americans are a remarkably bighearted people, but I believe the purpose of our philanthropy must not only be generosity, but justice.”

Justice might be uncomfortable. It might mean that I have to give up something. It might mean that I have to do more than just pray for peace and give money.

Source: OutFront Minnesota

Walker continues, “Philanthropy can no longer grapple simply with what is happening in the world, but also with how and why.” We must ask: Why is it still so hard for people in rural Africa to access loans? Why is it still so dangerous for our local coordinator to visit the slum in Nairobi? How do we get more youth educated and then employed in stable jobs? And we will likely find that those answers take more than easy money.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was way more radical than the collective memory suggests. In a passionate lecture to the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in 1966, King calls on those gathered to wake up to action. “One of the great misfortunes of history is that all too many individuals and institutions find themselves in a great period of change and yet fail to achieve the new attitudes and outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.

There are the beginnings of a revolution now. A revolution of people demanding justice for black lives, demanding rights for women, demanding for their voices to be heard. Will this be our year to wake up and do more than throw money in the bucket, hoping for change, wishing for a nicer world?

*Pictured above: Working with local leaders in Malawi for economic justice through their savings and loans cooperative is part of SIA’s role in the revolution. Here I am pictured with the leadership of the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative in July 2014.

Acting our faith – Welcoming the immigrant

Acting our faith – Welcoming the immigrant

This week, with all the news about refugees and migrants running from dangerous situations and lured by hope, we have an extraordinary opportunity to put our spirit into action.

I have been heart-wrenched after hearing about the monumental journey that families are deciding to take, either together or apart, to search for that hope and that peace that is our right. Sadness and death are all around. Fear keeps people from reaching out a hand.

And yet, there are also promising stories of radical acceptance, of people welcoming strangers, giving encouraging words and nourishing food. Churches and secular communities are coming together saying, “We must do something. We must act to make the world better NOW.” And they are finding ways to act, by pressuring governments to accept more refugees and even sponsoring families to come to live in safety.

Welcoming the Stranger

This act of making space for, and welcoming the stranger, is core to my faith. Three years ago I came to appreciate this on a deeper level. (Reposted from my 2013 blog post):

“It surprised me just how much is in the Bible about the stranger. For example, “When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34). Over and over again, the Bible makes it pretty clear: treat people fairly, no matter where they come from; welcome them, because you never know when you might find yourself in need of hospitality.

Hospitality builds community, in part, because it is a gift to both the giver and receiver. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2). Both the host and the hosted have the opportunity to meet angels. [blog link]. Eight months ago I came to Canada – an immigrant – and I’ve received so much of the generous hospitality to newcomers. But just last week I was able to help a woman in the grocery store find what she needed, “I’m new in town,” she said by way of explanation. And so, I helped her, because I once was the newest newcomer. Plus, who knows, she might be an angel.”

“respect myself and my brothers and my sisters
”

In the coming weeks may we get down to pray and then get up off our knees and act to show our true respect for those members of our global family who are courageous enough to leave what they know to seek a better future.

Am I young enough to believe in revolution
Am I strong enough to get on my knees and pray
Am I high enough on the chain of evolution
To respect myself and my brothers and my sisters
And perfect myself in my own peculiar way.
~Kris Kristoferson, from Pilgrim’s Progress

Why give internationally?

Why give internationally?

When I put out a call for blog posts that people would like me to write, I got this suggestion:

Q: “I would like a post about “Why Africa?” So many of my friends say they want to support causes close to home, so are less inclined to support causes around the globe. Can you speak to that? I know you have insight about this.”

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A: Thanks for the great question! My reasons for giving internationally fall around five key considerations:

  1. Your money can have a much larger impact internationally.

SIA’s Small Business Grants of $150 can help a family in Malawi or Kenya start a small enterprise. In order to start any business in the U.S. you’d need a much larger investment. Similarly, a small amount spent internationally on de-worming pills can significantly improve a child’s life, whereas the same amount wouldn’t have the same affect on long-term quality of life in the U.S.. Our dollar has much greater purchasing power in so many African countries.

 

  1. Simply greater need internationally.

Many developing countries have much less government and social support available. There is a lot of infrastructure and also individual rights that we can take for granted in the U.S.. Most people in the U.S. don’t face the same barriers to accessing basic financial services or medical care that are the norm for a majority of people in Uganda. Many parts of Malawi do not have running water or electricity. Those are basic things that are so well-established in the U.S. that we can forget that they are there. Giving internationally can help people access things that we don’t even realize we already have.

 

  1. Expanding my community and connecting with the larger world.

While giving locally can help people I see around me, I think it is also important to give to those who are beyond my scope of vision and who still need help. There are levels of poverty and violence that are so much greater than anything I see in the U.S. and it is important to remember them even when I can’t see them. Giving internationally, and learning about international issues, helps me to connect with the global community and form a greater understanding of the varied experiences of living on earth that are so different from my own.

 

  1. To right historic wrongs.

This might be a more controversial consideration but I do think it is important to recall that British, American, and other colonial projects have had massive, lasting, negative impacts on the lives of people in the colonized countries. The U.S. benefited greatly over many generations on the backs of slaves from Africa, as well as minerals and natural resources taken from African countries. Giving internationally can be a way to recognize that history and privilege, and to work for a better future.

 

  1. Finally, in seeking a balance between local and international giving, consider how you can give differently for each need.

It is much more effective to volunteer and give goods locally than internationally. Travel expenses and shipping costs can add up to significant amounts of money without helping those in need. Similarly, you can be a greater advocate to your local government or for societal change in your own community than attempting those same tasks in a culture where you are an outsider. Consider the old adage “think globally, act locally.” I’d add that while thinking globally, also give globally! Money travels easily around the globe and (see #1) can have an enormous impact in countries where people are living off only $1-5 dollars a day.

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Ultimately, I hope that you will all find both local and international causes that inspire you to give.

If you have other questions or topics on which you’d like me to reflect, let me know in the comments or in an email!

Give to SIA’s international programs now!

I want a Kenyan cell phone!

I want a Kenyan cell phone!

When you think Africa you might not think cell phones. You should though! In Kenya especially they are doing some really cool, innovative things with cell phones. In fact, there are a few ways I wish my North American cell phone service could be more like the Kenyan system…

Maureen Kasadi in Nairobi texts with a friend before our Small Business Fund meeting starts.

Maureen Kasadi in Nairobi texts with a friend before our Small Business Fund meeting starts.

1. Cheaper service

Have you noticed how expensive cell phone plans are in the US? Of course you have! Even the “pay as you go” plans can have $10/month minimums. In 2013, 70% of Kenyans had cell phones. Once you purchase the phone in Kenya, you can buy of “air time” to “top up” your account balance. Unlike the US, these airtime minutes are sold in increments of about 50 cents to $20.

The Kenyan system is truly pay as you go. If you can only afford 50 cents of airtime you can buy just the amount needed for that one important call. In the US it seems that monthly minimums keeps rising, giving me much more than I need each month.

2. Sending money

A banking revolution is happening in Kenya – and it’s happening because of cell phones. About 70% of Kenyans do not have access to a bank. They DO have cell phones though. Enter M-Pesa! M-Pesa allows people to transfer money through their cell phones.

The sender brings money directly to an M-Pesa dealer (which operate out of city grocery stores and the tiniest rural kiosks) and gives the dealer the cell phone number of the receiver. Then the receiver gets a text saying the money is available. They go to their local M-Pesa dealer and pick up the cash! Whereas before a daughter working in the city might’ve had to travel hours by bus to bring cash to her parents in the country, now she can transfer it instantly to them.

We are even using M-Pesa for SIA! We can make one bank transfer to Kenya and then have the Small Business Fund coordinators M-Pesa the money to each other. Each bank transfer costs us $10. Each M-Pesa transfer costs just $2-3.

Grace's shop in the Manyamula Market is connected to the new electricity lines in town and so she provides phone charging services for a small fee.

Grace’s shop in the Manyamula Market is connected to the new electricity lines in town and she provides phone charging services for a small fee.

3. Shopping around

Most Kenyans have non-smart phones – phones for texting and calling, rather than easy internet use – and most have space for two different SIM cards. This means they can switch between cell phone carriers as suits their needs. Airtel, Orange, and Safaricom are the three most popular carriers and each have different deals and rates for different times. When you have both an Airtel and a Safaricom SIM card, you can shift to use whichever has cheaper evening calls or cheaper calls within the carrier network. This flexibility seems like a dream for those of us locked into one carrier based on the phone or a 2-year contract!

Bonus: Sharing opportunities

As I blogged about last week, people are excited about electricity coming to Manyamula, Malawi. So far, just a few shops have access to the electrical wires, and others are using solar power. Both are highly valued because electricity is necessary to charge all these cell phones! When we visited Winkly Mahowe he showed us his solar panel connected to a power strip, where he allows neighbors to charge their cell phones for free. Charging is also a viable SBF business- we saw this crowded power source in one of the Manyamula market shops.

Fostering dignity in myself and others

Brown Ngoma is expanding his family's store, building a home, and now "when his family is sick he can pay for a private hospital." (Manyamula, Malawi)

Brown Ngoma is expanding his family’s store, building a home, and now “when his family is sick he can pay for a private hospital.” (Manyamula, Malawi)

“If I fail to treat someone with dignity, it is me, not them, who is undignified.” In other words, to keep my own dignity – that sense of self-respect and pride in oneself – I must honor everyone else’s dignity. Just because someone is poor it doesn’t mean they can’t or don’t have self-respect. In fact, as an article in the Guardian about international aid and dignity pointed out, “some of the poorest people are the most dignified. And some of the richest lack dignity.”

Luckily, Spirit in Action is a good place to work to practice honoring the dignity in each person. Our work is not just about numbers and outcomes, it’s about seeing the world and our fellow human beings as inherently filled with potential and self-respect.

Founded with Dignity

Even before Del Anderson founded Spirit in Action, he was enthusiastic about affirming the dignity of each person he wrote to. In the stuffed envelopes he sent out Del included simple self-help projects and encouraging messages.

Messages like: “Within you is the power. Within you is the power to face life and all that lies before you with unshakable assurance that the Lord your God is in the midst of you.”

And, “[The glory of God] is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

Does this enhance our dignity and that of others?

The Yuba family shows us that they have enough food - good bread and chicken - from their pottery and kiosk business successes. (Kasozi, Uganda)

The Yuba family shows us that they have enough food – good bread and chicken – from their pottery and kiosk business successes. (Kasozi, Uganda)

Imagine, the Guardian article mused, if before we implemented a program we asked, “is this dignified? Does this enhance our dignity and that of others?” In fact, this is something that the SIA Board already does!

Small Business Fund groups and community grant projects are led by capable and empowered local leaders. They are taking charge of their own success – and that’s dignity. We’re used to seeing that dignity. And so we’re wary when grant applicants seem to play on our emotions by presenting themselves as inherently lacking or desperate.

Dignity is not about SIA buying and sending cooking pots to Africa. It’s about helping a family build steady income through their own business. Then it’s their own hard work that foster their hope in the future.

Last summer, I saw the bright glow of self-respect in the faces of the Small Business Fund members. They were all so proud of how far they’d come – the pots they could buy on their own, the medical care they could afford. They wanted to show me that they were the means of their success. To prove that they were able to tap into and channel that power within that Del talked about. And with dignity I affirmed their success. I drank the tea they offered to me and admired the new chairs. In these exchanges we were each letting our own light shine, and giving the other person space to shine too!

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