Missional Living

Warring Against Death

I make really odd faces when I’m asking questions.  In fact, my face is so scary that the NSA has banned my face from the internet after this post.  ”Next time, wear a mask” they said.

Oh, and the interview took place in a van on the back roads of Guatemala.

As you might imagine, with a face that frightening, it was next to impossible to get my interviewee to be relaxed and comfortable.  Especially when I started the interview with the statement, “Sup.  I’m Caleb. I’m a funeral director.”

Alma – the lovely lady I interviewed through a translator – is World Vision’s Guatemalan National Sponsorship Coordinator.  Her and her team keep track of the 60,000 sponsored children in Guatemala.

She was a sponsored child from the age of five through twelve (she told me she still has the photos of her sponsors in her office desk) and credits World Vision for sponsoring her early schooling; schooling that eventually culminated in a bachelor’s degree in education.

Alma’s very proud of the fact that her children are not sponsored children.  She’s proud because her life embodies the story that World Vision is attempting to reproduce; a structure of support that eventually produces self-sufficiency, where World Vision helps people stand on their own.  She embodies the best of the World Vision sponsorship program, so who better to lead it?

After making a number of awkward faces while prodding about her life, I made the conversation even more uneasy when I opened up my series of questions about death.

My weird, scary murderer face.

We talked about funeral practices in Guatemala and thankfully Alma understood enough about American culture to provide some contrasts by explaining that there’s no embalming and there’s rarely a funeral director involved in rural Guatemala.  Most funerals are at home and for many there’s no casket involved.

Alma told me that the body is carried to a local graveyard and for nine days after burial the family is in mourning, donning black clothes.

I then asked her, “What about children?” It’s here she begins to show some emotion.  The conversation moved past information exchange as we reached the heart of her job.

I know some poverty stricken cultures will forgo naming children until they reach a couple months of age.  Where infant mortality rates are high (like Guatemala), an unnamed child means less attachment, less love and less grief.  With that understanding I didn’t want to assume Guatemala had infant funerals, so I asked, “Are there funeral customs for children?”

“Yes, there are.”

As the conversation trekked onward, I could tell that I was getting close to the need that inspired her passion.

My “Did you just fart?” face.

“And what,” I asked with my ugly face, “is the leading cause of death for Guatemalan children?”

“Malnutrition and preventable sickness” came out of her mouth as though she spoke the name of an enemy.  An enemy that was ever present in her mind.  An enemy that was as close to her as a lover.  An enemy that went to bed with her, that walked with her to work and that motivated her 10 to 12 hour work days.  Anger, even hatred, contorted her face as she described how dysentery, “common” infections and even a simple cold will blow out the promise of a new life.  How a lack of food will starve a child in the rural areas of Guatemala where work and a nutritious diet are scarce.

“These deaths don’t make me cry” she paused, “they make me angry. They are so easily preventable, so easily solved.”  As we talk some more I begin to see a warrior in Alma.  A woman warrior.  No armor, no swords and shields, but a driven fighter set on saving children from preventable death.

I know how nonprofits work.  There’s an enemy that the nonprofit stands against and that enemy is fought with the doubled edged sword of resources and volunteers.  When there isn’t enough resources and volunteers, there’s casualties.

In this war – the war that Alma is fighting — the casualties are children.

“Do you feel like you have failed when a child dies?” A resounding, “No.”  She says, “Because what we’re doing is a partnership.  We are teaching parents to care for their children.  I can only do as much as my resources allow me.”  

And partnership is the key. You might not be able to volunteer, but you can provide the resources for those who do.

The picture is gut wrenching, dark and sad.

The reality is this: people in poverty need the help of you and me.

It many cases, you can’t money solve a problem.  You can’t throw money at the problem and fix it.  But in this case, we’re not throwing money at a problem, we’re giving it to people, to a warrior woman like Alma and I believe she knows what to do with it … she can at least save some.  Help her.

Sponsor a Child in Guatemala

Seven Reasons You Shouldn’t Support World Vision

The other week I asked this snarky question to my Confessions of a Funeral Director Facebook community:

Over the past two weeks I’ve been attempting to encourage people to join me in sponsoring a child in Guatemala through World Vision.

Within those two weeks over two million people have visited my Facebook page. Out of those two million, two people (that I’m aware of) sponsored a child through World Vision.

I’m both excited and disheartened that my efforts have produced two sponsorships (yeah) from two individuals out of two million (ugh). Honestly, I’m kind of dumbfounded.

So, here’s a question for you: If you donate to charity, what are your motivating factors for doing so?

And, why do you think it’s so difficult to motivate people to give money to something wonderful (like sponsoring an impoverished child in Guatemala) when we will easily give money to something less wonderful (a new shirt that we don’t need, etc., etc.)?

So here are the top seven answers that you posted.  And I will respond to each accordingly.

One.  It’s better to sponsor an elephant.  

I hope you’re not being sarcastic because if I could sponsor a baby elephant, I would too.  So you win.

Two.  I want to give locally … to ‘Merica.  

Okay?  You’re selfish?

See, I don’t think we will fix everything here in the US.  Like ever.  But having worked with vulnerable at-risk youth here in America for two years I can say that there is more opportunity in the US for “poor kids” than there is for “poor kids” in Guatemala, or any other third-world countries.

In the US there’s programs that provide food for the hungry (like food stamps).

There’s *FREE* public education that goes to the 12th grade.

And after high school there’s wonderful aid for low income students to attend college.

There isn’t (systemic) child labor.

There’s a reason why people (especially poor people) from other countries want to come to America.

It’s easy for our perspectives to be limited by our locality. To develop a sense of tribalism and nationalism is only natural. But to see past the limits of sight and find empathy for those outside our borders is – in a way – supernatural. To have a vision beyond self, beyond family and beyond country, to have a vision for the world starts with a recognition that we are citizens of a larger kingdom. And this recognition is why I support World Vision. Not only is World Vision able to empathize with “the other”, but they focus on holistically helping the weakest, the most helpless . . .the children. They are doing what I imagine Jesus would be doing if he was walking the world today which is why I’m so excited to join their efforts in Guatemala!

Three. World Vision is a Christian organization.

Please, don’t misunderstand me … I don’t want you to feel like “World Vision” has the corner on charity.  In fact, World Vision itself recognizes this and partners with outside organizations.  I also REALLY hope that you have a cause that you’re SUPER passionate about.  And, I do REALLY want you to just give, to learn to give and to make giving a part of your life.  And I do believe World Vision is a wonderful place to practice giving.

Secondly, World Vision isn’t evangelical in the sense that they evangelize.  They are a Christian group attempting to practice the words of Jesus.

This attempt involves more than words and food, it involves education, health care, economic development, spiritual care, agriculture and clean water. All recognition factors that World Vision does in Guatemala and abroad.

For example, here’s a photo of the Guatemalan World Vision violin school:

But, with that said, I support you donating to secular organizations and hope that you can see that Christians are interested in much more than preaching.

Four.  They’re coming to America anyways.  

I’m in Guatemala now and there’s a lot of kids here.  Sooooooo ….

Five.  I’ve got something serious I’m working through.  

I wish someone would sponsor your child too!  And I say that with tears in my eyes.  Give all that you have to your wonderful child.

Six.  World Vision is irresponsible with their money.  

Yes.  When giving ALWAYS give wisely!  It is YOUR money.  And I know that you are giving to other organizations because you seem like that type of person.  Although I do believe World Vision is responsible.

Here’s a response that doesn’t come from my computer keys …

World Vision gives about 80 cents per dollar to the work.  The other 20 cents involves advertising, workers and overhead.  And I’m okay with that.

Seven.  Because consumerism.  

So, yes … if you need that new T-Shirt or iPhone … it’s your money … and if you’d rather give your money to a toy … that’s okay.  But like the post above states, we’ve all been touched by consumerism and I’m really trying to shake it off.  And one way I’m losing that consumerism is by supporting a charity like World Vision.

*****

 I’m sure there’s other reasons that people feel they shouldn’t support an international charity like World Vision, but I feel like the above seven are the general ones.  Bottom line: I believe World Vision is worth considering.  I’m here, on the ground, and it IS working.

Sponsor a Child in Guatemala

Saving the Laughter of Children

After nine years of trying to bring a new life into our family, we wanted a child so much that we adopted.  And Jeremiah is simply the greatest gift that we have EVER been given.  I’ve always understood that children are precious, but waiting nine years for Jeremiah only amplified that sentiment.

Today in the Guatemalan World Vision base I met Federico.  He’s slightly older than Jeremiah, which is why I sponsored him.  That age connection with Jeremiah coupled with the intense love I have for my son and the perspective that nine years of infertility have given me was a concoction for emotional wreckage.  I knew that meeting a child Jeremiah’s age who is disadvantaged and impoverished would move me to tears.  I knew that today would be intense … that my love for Jeremiah would somehow and in someway pour out to Federico.

I came to this three hour meeting prepared for the emotional roller coaster.  I had plenty of deodorant (cause I tend to get body odor when I’m emotional), breath mints (cause I’ve been drinking and drinking all this wonderful Guatemalan coffee) AND I brought a soccer ball, tennis ball sized bouncy ball and an authentic Mexican cowboy hat as gifts … just because I’m cool like that.

All ten of us “World Vision Bloggers” arrived at the World Vision base to find it decorated with balloons and our sponsored kids waiting in anticipation to meet their “godparents” (all the Guatemalan children call their sponsors “godparents”).  To my surprise, Federico’s brother Christian also came with him, so I divided up my gifts.  I gave Christian the sombrero and the bouncy ball, but I gave the best present – the soccer ball – to Federico.

Me giving my gifts to Federico and Christian :: Photo credit Laura Reinhardt

Federico :: Photo Credit Laura Reinhardt

Christian :: Photo Credit Laura Reinhardt

Putting my sunglasses on Federico :: Photo Credit Matthew Paul Turner

Photo Credit Matthew Paul Turner

From left to right: Me, Christian, Federico and their mother :: Photo Credit Matthew Paul Turner

Photo Credit Laura Reinhardt

At first I followed Federico around to the metal swing set, then we kicked his soccer ball back and forth and — to the delight of everyone — I let Federico and Christian tackle me.  Just like Jeremiah, they jumped on top of me and I lifted them up, making them fly as they giggled and laughed with such a genuine laughter that it seemed they were having the time of their lives.  These children are just like Jeremiah.  Just like your children their belly laughter has the endearing ability to make you believe that the world is full of goodness.  And that you — THAT YOU — at this very moment are the source of all the goodness.  For a second, for a moment, their laughter helps us believe again.

It helps us believe that there’s more than darkness and pain.  That love and goodness and faith exist. That there is life before death and that it’s okay to smile and love and forgive.  It seems that all those things that have been buried by the dirt of pain, bitterness, selfishness and hate are all uncovered at the very sound of a child’s laughter … as though their laughter is the very language of God.

As I write this and remember Federico and Christian’s laughter, I do believe.  I do.  Through the holistic approach of World Vision and my sponsorship, both Federico and Christian’s laughter will not end with our game of airplane.  They will have the opportunity that I will give to my son.  They will have the opportunity to believe and dream for stability and health.  They can break the cycle of generational poverty.  They can raise a family, play airplane with their children and let the sounds of laughter wash away the terrors of the world.

After three hours, I was no longer following Federico around.  He was following me.  I, his friend … his godparent.  And I will do my part to keep him laughing.  To fly.  To believe.  To dream.  Together.

Photo Credit Laura Reinhardt

PLEASE join me in saving the laughter of these children.  Join me by sponsoring a child through World Vision.  Please, click here. 

Sponsor a Child in Guatemala

Poverty Pornography

Me playing Angry Birds with a young Guatemalan. Photo credit Jessica Chenevey Shyba.

Today I saw children destined for a greatness that will go unrealized.  Undernourished until the age of three or four, their bodies will remain in an underdeveloped state where body, mind and spirit will be delayed from now until death.  In this area of Guatemala, 9 out of 10 children suffer from this debilitating chronic malnutrition.

Ultimately, they suffer from poverty.  And when I say “poverty” your mind may conjure up photos and videos that act – in some way – like poverty pornography.  These imagines depict a situation with all the flesh and emotion without the person.  You’ve seen plenty of poverty porn on commercials that attempt to guilt you into sponsoring a poor kid with graphic images of “poverty.”  Or that god-awful traumatizing Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercial that guilts you into adopt 100 homeless dogs and cats.  I want to move beyond the starving puppies and move towards the humanity in poverty.

Poverty isn’t just basketball bellied African children with flies hovering around their desperate imploring eyes.

And those who are impoverished aren’t so because they are evil, or because God has cursed them or because they have a bad case of the stupid.

Poverty isn’t simply a lack of financial means.  Nor is it caused by a LACK of hard work, responsibility, character or godliness.

Poverty isn’t always a choice brought on by people who would rather sit on their couches than work an honest day’s labor.

And poverty IS NOT something you can climb out of all on your own.  You can’t just get out of it with an “I can do this all by myself” good ‘ol ‘Merican attitude.

Those in poverty are not deficient human beings who are on a lower rung in the echelon of human evolution … one step above the really smart sign language monkeys.  They are people just like you and like me.  Well, except they haven’t watched the latest Breaking Bad episode … and they probably know nothing about the iPhone 5s and 5c release.

“Those people” are the people who go hungry because they’ve given all their portion to their malnourished children.

People who work harder than you and I and yet still don’t have enough funds to provide the basic nourishment needed for the physical and mental development of their children.

Like the family I met today.  The husband walks from farm to farm looking for stable work, waking at 5 AM and coming home at dark, while his wife tends the children and their garden of corn and beans at home.

These are people who believe in Fate because they have no control over the outcome of their sick child.  With no access to healthcare, it’s “que sera sera” (now that song will be stuck in your head all day … mwahahaha).  There is no fix for sickness, no doctor for healing and no saving grace of medicine.  There is what will be, be it life or death.

And this impoverishment produces a cycle of generation poverty.

When a child has chronic malnourishment and the permanent physical and mental delay that comes with it, there isn’t any opportunity here in Guatemala for him or her to be anything more than a low paid worker, or – worse yet – a gang member.

This is the reality.  And it’s not nice.  Of course poverty exists in America, but this isn’t America’s poverty.  There’s no brush that I can use to paint rainbows and unicorns on this canvas.  The picture is gut wrenching, dark and sad.

This isn’t the life they want, nor is it a life they can choose to escape.  The reality is this: people in poverty need the help of you and me.  It’s just how it is.  Let them realize the greatness God intends.  Join me with World Vision.

Join Me in Empathy as I Travel to Guatemala with World Vision

A couple years ago we had a late night house call.  We drove up to the house, and an uncle came outside to meet us, explaining the situation we were about to enter.

“You guys are here for my niece, Sara.

She’s 16 years old.

Been fighting cancer for four years.

She’s in the living room with her mother, Joan.”

We entered the house, walked to the living room and were greeted by about 20 family and friends that were scattered all over the living room, some sitting, and some standing, others laying on the floor.

When a terminal person is dying under home care it’s normal for a hospital bed to be temporarily set up in a large room, enabling larger groups to visit the dying.  In this case, the bed was in the living room, but the deceased wasn’t to be found lying on it; which was very unusual.  We allowed them time to explain who Sara was, what she meant to them.  All families need this time.  They need to believe that through their stories Sara would be incarnated in us, so that we could love her the same … so that we could become a part of their family.  Once we’re apart of “the family”, we no longer represent a cold funeral director, but a tender caregiver.

After their stories, we asked them if they were ready for us to make our removal.  They all had said their last “good-bye”.  And then we asked, “Where is Sara?”

“She’s here”, said Joan the mother.  And then we saw her.  When we first walked into the living room we saw a small girl being held by Joan.  The girl looked to be around ten years old, and being that it was late we just assumed that this was one of Sara’s younger sisters who had fallen asleep in Joan’s arms.  But, it turned out, Sara had died in her mother’s arms and there she laid.

Like the transfer of a sleeping child from one adult to the next, I got down on my knees, slide my arms under Sara’s head and thighs, lifted her starved body out of her weeping mother’s lap and carried her to our stretcher.  The room was full.  Full of love.  Full of grief.  Full of tears.  And I was a part of it all.

Empathy.

I tell you this story because I want to make a distinction between empathy and sympathy.  Let me explain the difference:

Imagine being at the bottom of a deep, dark hole. Peer up to the top of the hole and you might see some of your friends and family waiting for you, offering words of support and encouragement.  This is sympathy; they want to help you out of the pit you have found yourself in. This can assist, but not as much as the person who is standing beside you; the person who is in that hole with you and can see the world from your perspective; this is empathy.  — Dr Nicola Davies

There are times (at funerals especially) when all we can give is sympathy.  When it’s outside of our ability to fully empathize with a person’s situation.  But, there’s other times when you can’t help but be drawn into the narrative, so that you enter the narrative and become a character in the story.  Not just a narrator, but an actual character in the drama of life and death.

Too often when child sponsorship programs like World Vision attempt to gain your support, they appeal to your sympathy.  “Look at this poor, starved, naked child as he picks food out the dumpster.  His distended stomach looks like a balloon and those flies around his face are the only friends he has.”  Sympathy appeal, expected to make you go, “O.M.G.  If I only spend $40 a month I can give him some rice and … maybe I’ll send him an iPad for Christmas.”

And sympathy works … it creates donors.

But I want to invite you to empathy.

Mother Teresa said, “Do you look … at the poor with compassion?  They are hungry not only for the bread and rice, they are hungry to be recognized as human beings.”  This “recognition” involves more than food, it involves

education,

health care,

economic development,

spiritual care

and food, agriculture and clean water.

All recognition factors that World Vision does in Guatemala and abroad.

In September I’m going with World Vision to Guatemala to visit a child that I sponsor.  And I want you to sponsor a child as well (here’s a link to World Vision’s Charity Rating).  In fact, my goal is to have 50 children sponsored by you, my readers.

So, I’m inviting you to empathy.  I’m not selling you something or playing on your sympathy.  No, I want you to get down on your knees, look into the eyes of someone you don’t know, learn about them and walk with them as they grow.

Enter a story.

Click here to sponsor a child in the village that I will be visiting.  And, if you sponsor or not, help me reach my goal of 50 sponsorships by SHARING this post.  

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