Wednesday, December 23, 2015

What I Wish I Had Said {Looking back at Guatemala}

As a male sponsor, I have often wondered what it would be like to be a father in the developing world. I know gender roles are changing, but in most countries a father is still seen as the provider and protector of his family. But what if you were unable to fulfill these roles due to lack of education, resources or opportunities? What if you had to rely on help from some stranger on the other side of the world just to put food on your family’s table?

I am not yet a father myself, in the biological sense, so I can never really put myself in their shoes, but at a guess I think that resentment, jealousy, anger and helplessness might play a part.

Over the last nine years I have sponsored over 60 kids with Compassion, many of whom didn’t have a father in their life, or he was absent or often working in another city. The idea that I would be considered some sort of ‘replacement father’ was never my intention and, to be honest, makes me feel uncomfortable. I believe that part of the role of a sponsor is to partner WITH the child’s parents and provide them with access to education and skills to be able to get themselves out of material poverty. However I am aware that God has placed me in their lives for a reason and if they need a father-figure or male role model in their lives, then I am happy to bear that honour/privilege/responsibility.

In July I visited Guatemala and Nicaragua on another of my Compassion trips. One of my sponsored kids is Josefa, who lives in a Mayan (indigenous) community in the mountains. She’s 17 and the oldest of five children. Instead of going to school and working toward her dream of being a doctor, Josefa and her brother are forced to work for a pittance because her father has chosen to deal with his family’s poverty by drinking alcohol, often leaving them without anything to eat. I met him when I visited in 2013 and he was a nice enough man, he was just making a lifestyle choice that negatively affected his family.

To partly explain (but not excuse) her father’s choice, this is an excerpt from a book called “Fast Living” by Dr. Scott C. Todd which goes into detail about the realities of living in extreme poverty and what the solution is:

"Hopelessness is the deepest trench of poverty. It cuts through the heart and mind and is very difficult to climb out of. It whispers “It won’t get any better. Just give up. This is the disempowered state – a fatalistic outlook and condition. When you are disempowered you shrug in defeat. You don’t soldier on. You just sit down and wait for a rescue you don’t expect to come. It’s a condition in which you no longer hope for a better future and you don’t see yourself capable of making positive changes. Instead, you see yourself as a victim of unchangeable circumstances. The voices of fatalism burrow deeper into your mind: “You can’t. You’re worthless.” To get out of the pit of hopelessness you must climb, yet the very strength to climb requires the hope you’ve lost. You must believe a better future is possible in order to strive for it. Everyone knows that a better future requires getting and keeping a job. For this, you to strive and take risks, you need determination and hope. But when you’re disempowered, your hope is beaten down, so you have no energy with which to strive. You have no faith, so you don’t take risks.

The “rescue” strategy requires Truth to combat the lie. Poverty whispers “You can’t.” But God says “With me, you can. You matter. You are loved. You’re made in my image. I hear you and I will walk with you on the difficult road. I have a plan, so don’t give up. It can get better.” The good news of Jesus Christ is a matchless, unrivalled rescue strategy in multiple dimensions. If there is anything that exposes the lies of poverty, it is the gospel. But the proclaimed gospel is not enough. Disempowered people need Jesus’ spoken truth and they need His disciples to live it. They need to see the muscles of the gospel flex, expressing love in gritty, persevering, intelligent, effective action.

The good news of Jesus, proclaimed and demonstrated, is the most powerful anti-poverty strategy. Jesus offers the restoration of hope, a new supportive and caring community in the church and a strong foundation from which to try, to risk and to succeed or fail, knowing you’ll be loved either way. The gospel leads us to love others and forgive, to see the image of God in our enemies as well as ourselves, and to discover a genuine basis for dignity and integrity. The gospel can raise a generation of men and women of integrity – servant leaders – to displace corruption and restore social trust upon which a nation can rise. The gospel creates people who work for the Lord in the humble service of causes much bigger than themselves. Sharing the gospel is anti-poverty work. It is more profound than any other effort because it penetrates layers of the human condition that cannot be reached with a vaccinating needle. The gospel brings healing and hope. It ignites new initiatives by bringing hurting people from all economic levels into relationship with God. His Holy Spirit fills us with vision and we can see that anything, absolutely anything, is possible! Even the end of extreme poverty."

On the day I visited Josefa and her family, they hadn’t seen their father for three days. From the way she interacted with me, it was so obvious she missed his love and attention, and had never really had it. We visited the Project at the church and as we were leaving to go to the family’s house, her father showed up. He was soaking wet and clearly affected by alcohol.

I was well aware of the family’s situation, as Josefa mentioned her father in nearly every letter she wrote. I had rehearsed what I would say to him should I meet him, but when he turned up I was completely taken by surprise and you know what they say about the best laid plans…

I waited breathlessly to see what would happen and as he approached I breathed a prayer that there wouldn’t be some sort of confrontation. He reached out his hand and, thankfully, he was full of nothing but gratitude to me and to God for taking care of his daughter through sponsorship when he knew he couldn’t.

We were in front of all the Project workers as well as Josefa, her mother and her four siblings, sitting in the car waiting to go. I felt so sad they had to witness their father in this state. He was rambling and swaying from side to side, tearful with gratitude but wrestling with his wretched state and the knowledge of the impact his choices were having on his family. My translator had a brief conversation with him, saying the only solution to his predicament is to give his life to Jesus. He seemed to understand this and nodded along, but it was clear that the alcoholism had him in its grasp.

We then drove to the family’s house nearby, leaving Josefa’s father behind. When we arrived we had a lovely conversation with lots of laughs, threw my Australian football around a bit and exchanged gifts. At one point there was a knock at the door. It was Josefa’s father. Begging to be let into his own house. The youngest sibling went toward the door but his mother stopped him. She was a strong and feisty woman and was adamant that her husband was not going to spoil this occasion.

Aware that the man was alcohol-affected and being locked out of his own house, I waited to see what would happen. I felt uncomfortable at the awkwardness of the situation. Fortunately he only tried knocking one more time, then sat down outside and started to sing. My translator said he was singing a Christian song he had learned at church.

In a sad twist, the father’s lifestyle choice ostracized the family even further because as an openly Christian family they are a minority in the community. The other families, many of whom are going through the same thing with their husbands and fathers, look at Josefa’s family and say “Well, what’s different about them? What difference is God making in their lives?” and they are criticized and judged.

This day has impacted me, even six months on, and I often think about what I would say to Josefa’s father if I met him again. I have settled on something like this:

"I know your life is hard and you are dealing with it the best way you know how. But God has given you six precious gifts - a wife and five children - and He wants you to provide and care for them. Jesus wants to help you and to heal you. No matter who you are or what bad things you've done, He wants to forgive you and have a relationship with you. You just need to give your addiction to Him and trust Him to provide your needs. And He's already doing that. He has provided a sponsor for two of your kids, as well as a family of people at the church. They are there to support and care for you."

Whatever you think of Jesus, He is the only reason that I, or any of the people involved in Compassion (office staff, Pastors, volunteers, tutors) do what we do. His love is real, transforming and relentless and we want to share it. Ultimately, what people do with it is up to them, and I'm praying that Josefa's father comes to know that Love and it transforms the lives of him and his family

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