In the states, it is extremely common for a person to ask another, ‘how are you?’ We do this as greeting.
I’ll walk into a 7-11, look the cashier in the eye, and say ‘Hi, Ruthie, how are you?’ I really ask the question to be polite and she answers with an ‘I’m fine’ to be equally polite. The truth is that we don’t really know each other well enough to ask the question, or to respond, honestly. After this brief exchange of niceties, we’ll go about our business and part ways – either of us not any different because of the interaction. It’s fine. I’m fine. She’s fine. We’re all just fine, thank you very much.
Somehow, this shallow politeness has manifested itself among children in the Nairobi slums. When a white person walks through, or even drives through the slums, children sitting and playing along the roadside will stop what they are doing, look you in the eyes and yell, ‘HOW ARE YOU!?’
Taken back, most of us would simply reply, ‘I’m fine, how are you?’ Most of these kids haven’t been fully versed in the response, so most simply just keep repeating ‘HOW ARE YOU’ until it almost becomes a chant. But some, who have obviously interacted with outsiders before, will reply, ‘I’m fine.’
If you spend enough time in these communities, the words will ring in your head. I would liken the sensation to lying in bed the night after being on a cruise ship. In the same way your body sways though your bed is still, my head rings with ‘How are you – I’m fine’ as if I’m standing next to these children, though they are nowhere to be found.
Sure, after watching these children living in the slums play together and run wild with joyful exuberance through the contaminated waste water, one could easily conclude that these children are, in fact, ‘fine-er’ than children in the USA who sit around, get fat, whine and watch tv. I’ll give you that one, but I’d argue that these American kids aren’t fine, either. We’re not fine, none of us. I’m not fine, and neither are these children. Ruthie at the 7-11 isn’t fine either. This is easier to articulate in the slums than it is in suburbs, but ultimately, we aren’t fine as a condition of the brokenness of this world.
The synonym of fine is satisfactory. The antonym of satisfactory is unsatisfactory.
That seems more like it. We are living in unsatisfactory context, though we don’t even know how to articulate it. This is a rather simple conclusion to make when standing in the slums with children, a rather trite conclusion when standing in my grassy suburban back yard, sipping a cup of coffee. And yet, what I feel changed me most from this experience was much more than the realization of our commonality in this regard.
In years past, after spending extensive time with tremendously hurting people, the question I would have normally posed to our group and staff would have been, ‘so, what are we going to do about it?’ Now, I believe the appropriate question to ask is this, ‘what is the spirit of God doing about this reality – and how can we serve alongside?’ It might sound like I’m mincing words here, but think about it.
The first question places the focus on us – I’m going to ‘save these people’, whereas the second statement places the focus on Jesus – because we know that he is the only one who is able to bring about life change, both for the rich and poor, alike. Perhaps the first step in better understanding and responding to the plight of the world’s poor is that we realize our own brokenness, manifested in obviously different outcomes, but equally tragic nonetheless. In so doing, we may realize our very own need for mercy and will then reciprocate, accordingly (Luke 10:37).
It seems unlikely for an experience like the one we shared as a team in the Mathare Valley to leave one unchanged. In the same spirit as my reflection above, others from our team have wrestled with the reality, and attempted to put words to their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. In a series of forthcoming blog posts, we will be sharing their insights in the hope that their reflections lead you to a place of personal reflection. We invite you to join us for the next two weeks as we hear from team members Justin Ahrens, Von Glitschka, Kelsey Timmerman and Bob Davidson.
Perhaps, through the process, the experience will change you, too.
How are you? I’m changed.