On Valentine’s Day 2000 I traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to South Africa and onto Harare, Zimbabwe. My childhood friend, Natalie, was working for a non-governmental organization there, and I, at the time a local AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteer, saved up enough pennies to visit her. From breath-taking (literally) safari rides to hiking Victoria Falls, the experience was indeed transformational.
Another transformational experience, however, was not on any travel brochure. It was witnessing firsthand a tent city. As far as the eye could see, people were living in ramshackle, hand-made homes, composed of cardboard boxes, sheets of tin, and canvas. This community stood in stark contrast to the walled-off homes and resorts that I had passed. It had a profound and overwhelming effect on me. Of course, you don’t have to go to Africa to witness stark poverty. When one UCS member, Bill, rode his bicycle across the country, his most astounding discovery was the grave poverty that much of America endures.
December’s theme for long-haul living is entitled “Children of God.” What does this mean? Take a glimpse at our reflection in the December Spirit in Practice packet:
It is a radical claim: The poor are the Children of God. Not the enlightened. Not the moral. Not the comfortable. And certainly not the rich. The poor. The outcast. The invisible ones. The ones forgotten and left to be forgotten. That, plain and simple, is the central message of Christianity. At least according to “liberation theology.”
In contrast to other schools of religious thought that arose from scholars in their libraries, liberation theology was born from humble Hispanic people and Catholic priests sitting around reading the Bible together. To them, the details mattered. How could you not see them as important?! The incarnation, for them, was not simply about God choosing to become a human, but God choosing to enter the world as a poor human being. The Christmas story, to the oppressed people of Central and South America, was not a story about a special child born in a barn; it was about an illegitimate child (an illegitimate illegal immigrant child to be exact!) being born and declared to have a special relationship to the Holy, a unique and even exclusive relationship to truth and salvation!
Historically Unitarian Universalists tend to prefer liberal theology—a school of thought that feels more comfortable helping the poor, than with the idea that the poor have wisdom about the world and an insight into the holy that eludes the rest of us. The liberation that liberation theologians talk about is the process of freeing oneself from the blinders of privilege and comfort. We privileged first-world folk aren’t used to seeing our privilege and comfort as an impediment to the spiritual life; more often, for us, comfort and privilege are considered the fruits of a well-executed spiritual life, or at least the basic requirements one must have before one can focus on spiritual things. For example, a recent best-selling liberal spiritual writer said, “Poverty kills the spirit. With hunger in your belly and worry about losing your job on your mind, it is not possible to even consider doing the work of the spirit.” The poor bible study members of Central American would disagree—just before they bow their heads and prayed for us!
For both Bill and me, our experiences traveling took off our blinders about extreme poverty. The next step required engagement or relationship building. When my friend Natalie arrived in Harare, she began volunteering at a place called Mashambanzou, a clinic for children with AIDS, run by Catholic nuns. At that time, Time magazine ran a cover story about the children being treated at Mashambanzou. Natalie worked with these children week in and week out, discovering the world through their eyes. Talk about taking off the blinders!
Then Natalie began sharing her stories and insights of Mashambanzou. She began with the Presbyterian congregation we had both grown up in Easton, PA. With a new vision, the congregation was inspired to act, specifically the youth group there. The youth’s annual fundraising event – a Rock-A-Thon (24 hours of rocking in rocking chairs) – an event that Natalie and I participated in as youth – was designated for Mashambanzou. The generosity was astounding. This year marks the 15th year of Rock-A-Thon Mashambanzou, and they are $5,000 away from reaching a $100,000 goal.
The Children of God – those often invisible, often forgotten – becoming seen and inspiring other children to see the world from their eyes and to help create a new vision of the world. Watch a video of Natalie at Mashambanzou and view photos of the Rockathon!
To practice ways of removing blinders,
To see the world through the eyes of another,
To share our insights with the hope of inspiration,
This is our spiritual task for the month.