catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 19 :: 2012.10.26 — 2012.11.08


One world friendships

In World Fare, the small town fair trade store I help run along with a group of volunteers, we have a laminated poster hanging from a shelf, secured by twine and clothespins.  I have no idea where it came from, but someone thought it was a fitting gift for the store at some point and up it went. I can’t count the number of times our eyes have drifted toward it when our board is having conversations around our shared values and how we practically carry out the store’s mission of global economic justice in our little corner of the world.  On a colorful background featuring animals and people from around the world are words from Wade Davis:

The world in which you were born is just one model of reality.  Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.

In the context of this issue’s topic of first world problems, Davis implicitly calls into question the very use of language like “first world” to categorize nations on the basis of their culture.  The perceived presence of a first world implies a best world that exists on a level above better and worse worlds, and indeed, we often speak quite casually about the “third world” and its problems, as though the first world has all of the answers for issues like hunger, unemployment and limited access to medical care.

I think I understand enough about global politics and economics to know how much I don’t know about the very complex issues that touch, and often damage, the lives of real people every day. For example, I might cringe at a program that’s assembling disposable packages of non-perishable ingredients for scientifically nutritional meals to be distributed around the world because I feel that everyone deserves access to fresh, delicious food and all of the wonder and imagination and whole-person health it can inspire — but I couldn’t begin to comprehend what it would take to grow a garden in an arid climate on $1 a day.  I have to be grateful for organizations like ECHO, who are developing practical agricultural solutions for communities of all sizes around the globe, but I also have to think about my own place of calling in the world and consider what my role might be.

The word that keeps coming up for me lately is “friendship.”  I don’t see my vocational life heading toward economics, politics or international development any time soon, but as a teacher, community organizer, gardener and dreamer rooted in Three Rivers, Michigan, friendship seems like a good place to begin.  As a model, I might look to Sant’ Egidio, a community from which I recently met several members.  Where a first world/third world dynamic might suggest a new form of cultural imperialism couched in good intentions, this decades-old Catholic movement reminds Christians that the goal is not to maintain our positions of power and powerlessness — of helper and helpee — in our care for each other, but to become friends to the extent that we identify our own needs with the needs of another.  This friendship does not exist in warm, fuzzy ignorance of the systems that privilege some friends over others for reasons of color or gender or ability or class, but in the hard place where some surrender their privileges in order to live closer to God’s heart, in communion with others.

I’m also drawn to the book Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission by Christopher Heuertz and Christine Pohl.  Heuertz is the international director for Word Made Flesh, an organization whose communities seek to embody Christ among some of the world’s most vulnerable people.  Acknowledging that such friendship is no easy task, Heuertz writes, “Learning to negotiate power dynamics within relationships between people who are extremely vulnerable and those with more conventional resources creates opportunities to explore complicated ethical tensions.  Having friends who are poor at the center of the community’s life, rhythms and purpose offers glimpses into what reconciliation with the so-called other actually looks like.”  Such friendships take a lot of effort, and they give back when we work at them, not in an immediate gratification sort of way, but in an eternal Kingdom sort of way.  Heurtz and Pohl write,

Friendships with people who are poor or vulnerable can challenge our arrogance in thinking we know how to fix their circumstances.  Our sweeping critiques of multinational corporations become more nuanced when friends are grateful for their jobs and proud of their products.  Friendships undermine our tendency to locate the problem “out there” and to try to fix it at a distance.  And friendship gives an urgency to our work for justice, to our search for ways to affect the decisions of multinationals and governments.  Friends who are poor challenge our lifestyles of consumption when they build generous and gracious lives out of very few material resources.

These friendships promise to subjugate our egos, whatever form they take, to better selves formed by grace, compassion and humility, as we become people who recognize that all are broken, and all have something to give.

At our best, I see this transformation happening in World Fare as the community of volunteers creates space in the store and in their hearts for someone like Terry.  He comes in daily (sometimes more than once) for the free fair trade coffee we have on offer, in theory to persuade buyers.  An imposingly tall figure with skin tanned and dirty from perpetual walking, Terry strides in and growls through the gravel that always seems to be rattling around in his throat, “Got coffee today?”  If we say yes, he helps himself, diluting the strong brew with water from the bathroom sink and folding himself down onto the couch while he sips.  Very rarely, he chats; mostly he just drinks his coffee and then strides out with a deep grunt: “Thanks for the coffee.”  Recently, however, he said thank you, turned for the door, but suddenly wheeled around with his hands deep in his pockets.  Then, fast as a switchblade, he whipped out two packages of Sour Straws candy.  “Wan’sum candy?”  I did want some candy.  “Thank you very much,” I said as Terry left and I felt a piece of the Kingdom blooming through the gracious crack that had opened in the boundary between our worlds.

Sant’ Egidio, Word Made Flesh, World Fare — there are so many reasons to believe that the goodness of creation exists for all people, not just those born into privilege.  It’s a first world problem indeed to fail to recognize the fullness of life that is possible when we surrender our small, tight-fisted selves to the open-handed love of God and others, each of whom has a gift to give. 

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