I’m still a sucker for scenes from Africa amid a drought and famine.
It’s what hooked me 35 years ago when a student in a required sociology class presented a report on world hunger.
She was merely going through the motions to get a grade, but amazingly, the seeds of her nonchalant oral report found fertile soil in my heart.
Somehow up to that point in life, I’d not been paying attention, was too focused on music and girls, and was oblivious to people hungry and dying in parts of the world. Something that day got my attention.
After class, I took the assortment of relief agency brochures she no longer wanted, went home and immediately sponsored an African child from my very modest college student funds.
I’m embarrassed to say it was only much later that I connected this compulsion to anything related to religion.
I’d missed the countless biblical calls to care for the hungry. Maybe I was asleep that Sunday, but the message I heard week after week was almost always about saving souls.
So when scenes from Africa appeared on a recent newscast, I was drawn again into the compelling reality that parents and children who are as beloved as my own are living in a major drought and famine. Although this can be labeled a “natural disaster,” it is still a tragedy and calls for a global response.
Today I know enough to be disturbed and to be disturbing, but not enough to recommend how to distribute food fairly within the confines and complications of our world.
I do know enough, however, to say that compassion and sacrifice are at the center of the matter.
I worked for a while with a group that advocated for legislation on behalf of world hunger issues. Our task was to get church people to write letters as a group in order to compel our elected officials to support hunger-related legislation.
As a motivation tool, we were told to remind congregants that if the starving aren’t fed, then they just might rise up and rebel against us. In other words, we were being encouraged to play upon the self-interest of the people in the pew.
I could never bring myself to employ this tool. I somehow intuited that a self-focused motivation would corrupt the giving and the giver, and likely, the gift itself.
Our common humanity is the prime motivation. We are drawn to stand in solidarity with strangers across the globe.
When compassion overwhelms our complacency, we cannot live comfortably, at least not for prolonged periods, knowing that we have so much and other children of God have so little.
I know. “Eat your peas, there are starving children in Africa” is light on logic and heavy on guilt.
I also know that healthy guilt is to the soul what nerves are to the body – it alerts us when something is amiss.
It functioned that way when I hired someone recently to reseal our asphalt driveway. I felt satisfied to check this task off the to-do list.
But then came the images from Africa again and something asked: $200 to seal a driveway to park your car on? Would you spend $200 to feed a child?
I would, I answered defensively, if the child were right in front of me and I knew she was hungry.
So is compassion tied to proximity or familiarity? You care only for those near at hand?
It’s hard. And complicated. And frustrating.
A group from our church returned recently from a two-week trip to the northwest African nation of Morocco. They interacted with refugees now in Morocco out of desperation from the sub-Saharan part of the continent.
Their new plight in Morocco is only tolerable in comparison to the likelihood of death in their home country, either from political unrest, famine or religious persecution.
Our group did what they could to convey love, offer resources, mobilize micro-enterprises and teach marketable skills.
One thing they didn’t do was photograph the scenes I’m such a sucker for – scenes of emaciated children and desperate parents. As one member of our group explained, “They have been used and abused, in predictable ways, but also by journalists and others.”
His compassion meant resisting the urge to photograph them, but to tell their story in order to invite compassion and sacrifice on behalf of these children of God from a different land, religion and race.
In lieu of photographs the group brought home a drawing from a gathering designed to allow refugees to share their experiences through art. A man’s face is superimposed on the tri-colored outline of Africa, his tears forming a lake of grief at the south end of the continent.
I become 19 again and hear the familiar, difficult call to compassion and sacrifice that means life not only for an African, but for me as well.
We’re more than brothers and sisters. We’re conjoined twins, our lives intertwined.
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.