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The Art of Being

In my late twenties I was presented with an opportunity to work with at risk youths and children who lived in post conflict Sierra Leone. At that time, I was working in Washington, DC and had a wonderful life. I loved my friends. I love the house I was living in. I was happy. At that time, I was working to support people who were homeless and in desperate financial situations. With my friends, we wrestled with how to live in a world with so much suffering, injustice and poverty. I was idealistic and took God’s call in Isaiah 58 very seriously. 

"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-- when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?... If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday…”

When I was offered a position in Sierra Leone, I wrestled with whether or not to take it. Was I ready to leave everything I knew and enjoyed, and jump into this unknown future far from home. I even organized a Quaker Discernment Circle because I wanted to know what God was calling me to. (I am not a Quaker.) I invited a group of people that I respected and gave them a chance to ask me questions to help me discern. I was waiting for a strong confirmation to “GO” or not go. I didn’t get that. Instead, I felt like the choice was mine and I had to decide whether or not I wanted to step into this unknown. I felt like I had theorized poverty long enough and now it was time to know poverty a bit more intimately. Would I feel in the depth of my core that something is not fair? Would I weep with friends who feel the weight of poverty and injustice? Will I see poverty and injustice beyond theories to debate and philosophize? After some time of self-reflecting, I realized that I wanted to move beyond philosophy and theory, and into a heart space. I realized that I wanted to move to Sierra Leone so that I can “be” with people who have experienced the injustice of war and poverty. I wanted to call these strangers, “friends”.   

He doesn’t want poverty and injustice to be something that is academic; he wants it to be intimate and practical.

I was reminded during  Advent and Christmas, that Jesus did just that. He came to earth and became friends with us who were lost. I think in some ways, he is calling all of us to be friends with strangers, foreigners and the vulnerable. His ministry on earth was one where he talked to and hung out with the tax collectors, questionable women and the overlooked people. He doesn’t want poverty and injustice to be something that is academic; he wants it to be intimate and practical. He said “For I was hungry and YOU gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and YOU gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and YOU invited me in, I needed clothes and YOU clothed me, I was sick and YOU looked after me, I was in prison and YOU came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:35-36). You, physically doing those things; and not for I was hungry and you wrote a check. 

In this society, where we have segmented ourselves into groups of similar social and economic status. It is hard to know, let alone BE, with someone that is not like us. Maybe it is time to volunteer with a group that has adopted a refugee family or tutor at a homeless shelter or groups working with at-risk kids? How can we expand our community to include those unlike us? How can we practice the Art of Being? Thirteen years after leaving Sierra Leone, the people I met and lessons I learned continue to shape what I do and how I see the world. Doing work that addresses injustices and poverty, we often “think” we know what people want or need; we think we know what is best for them. However, when we take the time to listen and be with them, what they need or want may actually be something else. We also realize from those experiences that we need to change and what we think we need is also something else. 

Photo provided by the author.

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