Those People

I got to go on a few missions trips growing up. I don’t know how much short-term missions trips benefit the people who are being ministered to, but those who go normally don’t come back the same, and that was the case with me. It’s a strange kind of culture shock to go to place and build a house for someone that is no bigger than your living room and realize that you are actually helping them. Or in the Philippines, to see whole families living in squalor – barely a shack to their name.
It always felt awkward coming home. As I said, I grew up in one of the nicest neighborhoods in one of the nicest areas in the world. It just felt wrong. Me, here, in comfort. They, there, barely getting food to eat on a daily basis. It doesn’t make me resentful towards rich people – let alone myself. People with discretionary income are the whole reason I have a job right now (who really needs music lessons?). But it’s still a strange thing. It’s a strange world we live in where in one place, the standard of living can be so high that I can moan and groan about moving into a two bedroom apartment, and in another place, a family would kill just to have one.
The Christian answer is, of course, to be generous. That may differ from person to person, but the principle is the same. If you can give, give. Better still, change the institution or start the institution that can make a difference. It’s what Jesus did for you. But lately, I’ve been feeling like that’s not enough. I don’t mean that whatever we’re giving, it should be more. I mean that something very essential has been missing in my heart.
It’s ironic that the most celebrated Irishman is actually a Brit. St. Patrick, the great missionary to Ireland, was born in Britain. But he was taken as a slave for a few of his younger years to Ireland where, as he put it, he saw Ireland from the “underbelly.” He managed to escape and return to Britain, but as he grew older, he felt called to go back and bring the message of Christ to the people who were once his masters.
The rest is history, of course. Ireland, in a particularly unprecedented way, converted wholesale over the years and actually became a missionary force in Europe when the very British and Euopean peoples that had sent Patrick to convert them slipped into paganism themselves.
But St. Patrick is not considered by the Irish as an Englishman. Or at least he shouldn’t be, because something really beautiful and touching happened over the years. St. Patrick, in his writings, began calling the Irish his people. In other words, whether he had stopped being an Englishman or not, he considered himself one of them. They had become his brothers, his sisters, his kinfolk, his neighbors, his countrymen. And he defended them and fought for them as such. They weren’t “those people over there” that he was converting. They were his own family.
That’s the difference between giving with a heart that simply wants to help other people, and giving because those people are as much a part of you as yourself. It’s not that the former is wrong. It’s just that the latter is better because the latter is the whole truth whereas the former is only part of it.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the neighborhood I’ve recently moved into. I hear spanish being spoken far more than english outside. I wouldn’t be surprised if a good number of my neighbors were illegal immigrants. Many of them certainly were not born here. I’ve never had anything against immigrants – illegal or otherwise. In fact, the ones I’ve known (including but not limited to my own parents) have only made me have more respect for them. They work hard. They often send money back to family members in their home countries, even though they often make less than I do here.
But I never realized that, though I am sympathetic, I’ve never really understood them from the “underbelly.”
As I said in a previous post, we are living in a two-bedroom apartment. The heat in Redwood City yesterday was unbearable, and we had to get outside (and I made a mental note to buy 5 fans at Target the next day). The space is cramped which, as I said, is good for us right now, but can get claustrophobic. There is always noise throughout the day (mostly from our home). At night, the music is blaring outside our window – usually with the thump thump of the bass loud and clear.
And as I look across from our apartment window to the window of the next complex, I see there is a family just as large. I look down from our balcony and see children running around in the apartment complex on the other side and realize that not only single yuppies live in apartments. I know the worries of having to support a family and raise children. I am beginning to realize the pressures of trying to make life work in a small space with multiple bodies. I wonder at the llives many of these people may have left in Mexico, Panama, Nicuragua, Guatemala. The difficulty of adjusting to a new country, perhaps not even knowing the language, but being a go-getter – doing it because you have to, because your want a better life for your family. I grumble at the nights I hear parties going on till 10:30 when my kid’s bed times are 8pm….. and then remember that they stay up that late because they probably love each other, enjoy one another’s company, and feel that a cool, beautiful evening shouldn’t be wasted.
I’ll never really understand what it’s like. I’ll never be like St. Patrick, but I’m thankful for the little I get to experience, and the little it teaches me of how much I have in common with “those people.” As a child of immigrants – hell, as a nation of immigrants – we ought to understand that they are our brothers, our sisters, our kinfolk, our neighbors, and, not yet in every case, but someday at least, our countrymen.

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