“…they are precious in His sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world”
I remember performing this song with my 1st grade comrades in front of our parents. This song has an uncanny ability to get stuck in your head, and by now I’m quite sure it already is. Jesus loves the…(dang it there I go again)! The song was meant to make us all feel included, and give us all a sense of affirmation no matter what we looked like. However, being the only black student in my Sunday School class at the time did present some confusion when we sang this song. It did feel good, absolutely, to know that Jesus loved me. But for some reason, I couldn’t help feeling like everyone was staring at me during this song. I felt like the “they” we were singing about. My young mind couldn’t articulate the emotions fluttering around in my little body, but I know it did feel, well, bad.
Nonetheless, it was and still is a beautiful song and of course Jesus loves all of the children; Red, Yellow, Black, and White. Some of the most passionate and direct things Jesus ever said were about children. Christ was so committed to children that he basically said, it would be better to drown than to keep any of them from of his attention.
My question is: “Why does it seem that in our church experience we seem to skip the red and yellow colors and move straight to black?” And by black of course I mean, African. In the mainstream church, there is always a new sermon or organization popping up who is committed to Africa. Church’s are sending over missionaries by the hundreds ever single year. As a Christian, and as one whose roots and affections are deeply connected to Africa, my first reaction to these reports are always, “wow that’s amazing”. I get excited as anybody else would and can’t wait to hear about the project. What great timing! Africa is indeed in a crisis. Aids is sweeping over parts of the continent in record numbers. Northern Africans are in a desperate and daily search for water. Hunger and education are of equal destitution in some areas. Meanwhile, West Africa is trying to usher in a new era of democracy and Christianity is growing faster there than any other place in the world. These are all amazing initiatives to get involved in. But when the speaker passionately lays out the purpose of the missions trip, I often hear things like, “we are going to fellowship and pray with them” “to have an experience” or “to teach them worship songs”.
Why in the world are you going all the way to Africa to do that?
I sit there wondering, how they saw it fit to launch a campaign for a mission trip that will cost thousands of dollars solely meant to over see the peoples “spiritual needs”.
I once had a Christian brother tell me, “All we have to do is give them Jesus, that’s all they need”. He said this with so much zeal and conviction that I began to think his position wasn’t such a bad idea. After all, Jesus sure has been good to me and I love him more than anything. On the car ride home from the meeting I began to think about what he said, and some key realities became most apparent to me. “Well….Jesus wasn’t all that HE needed”. He had healthcare, education, adequate housing, food, water, mentors, medicine, transportation and yet he wanted to go all the way over there to give them a worship song and to “hang out” with them?
My Christian brother was experiencing love on a number of different levels in the forms of attention and opportunity. Being in a place of privilege and power can easily blind someone of that reality. If fellowship and prayer is the goal why is it so necessary to go to Africa? Why not venture to downtown LA and spend time at the Union Rescue Mission to fellowship and pray with those wonderful people?
Why not go down to Homeboy Industries and… “Hang out”… with them?
I can’t help but notice that Africa seems to always be the scapegoat for a spiritual malnourished illustration, and it’s not right.
This is not so much a critique on world missions as it is on the human condition in Christian culture and the perceptions towards people who have less. When I see the photos from trips, and I look at those beautiful black babies being held by vanilla arms I am first and foremost thankful. Thankful, because I know a loving touch goes along way, and from experience I know those babies love to be picked up and held more than just about anything. However, when I see such images something inside me cautiously churns. I fear that this may be, subconscious or not, an inadvertent ploy of American nationalism in the form of condescending philanthropy. But one would never think it possible, because in conversations I never cease to hear things like, “ I have such a heart for Africa” or “I LOVE those people”. Nice words, and a sweet sentiment sure. But traveling 10,000 miles to take pictures, frame them, and place them at eye level view next to the Hawaii “vacay” photos…. is not love. Makes one wonder if this was an intentional trip to see lives improved or nothing more than an in depth Safari. Love can’t be hung on a wall. Love is not a frivolous thing to be talked about or a concept to be romanticized over. Rather, love is a steadfast commitment to the well being of another. Love is a decision. It’s an everyday realization that it’s not about you. It’s about service to others and finding a sense of joy in that service. This suggestion is precisely why John says, “God is love”. God is the ultimate depiction of the words: commitment, loyalty, and steadfastness. He addresses all of our needs. Our spiritual needs and our physical needs. I’m sure if you have had the experience of helping someone with both, you know that they are indeed one in the same.
I don’t think I believe that the church has a crypto agenda insinuating that the spiritual need of a child can only be delegated based on how dark they are. Sadly, I think the problem may be much deeper. I think it is a primordial issue of being powerful juxtaposed to being non-powerful. Being in a position of power makes one think it’s ok to say things like, I love “those” people. The weak can be so easily manipulated and used all in the name of “outreach”. We have to do a better job of monitoring our language, viewpoints, and ASSUMPTIONS about those who have less. I would look pretty foolish, if I said something like, “I have such a heart for the English people” or “ I can’t wait until God sends me back to Germany, I love those Germans”. Can you imagine seeing someone wearing a shirt that reads “love” but in place of the “O” lay the German flag? Such an image would be pretty funny, and would most certainly raise some ambivalent emotions. Why then is ok to say these things about the “weak”? It’s not. I am not arguing that Africa and places like it are not in need of help, I am arguing for the way we go about doing the helping.
For me, this photo personifies the problem with the church’s attitude towards Africa and for people that have less as a whole. I took this picture three years ago in the hills of the West African country of Ghana, such a wonderful place. Missionaries had visited this village before and told the people about a loving God and their sin, then left. A cross around the neck of a child with a swollen belly is not the Christian message. This photo represents what the church is not getting, or more importantly,what it’s not giving. God addresses, sees, and hears all of our needs. If we are to truly love people, I mean really love them. We have to make those steadfast commitments to not just the spiritual needs but to see the person holistically. If you say you love someone, its not enough to just pray have faith and hope.
Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed”, but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead- James2:15-17
If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth-1John3:17-19
I raise this issue because I think it makes us all ask the question, “What does it really mean to Love someone with the love of God”? Particularly someone who is in need? In the end, it’s all about the depth and sincerity of our love. We must, I must, deeply desire to get to a place where our conversations, perceptions, and ideals line up with that sacred commandment,“Love your neighbor as yourself” .
I want to “hang out” with that kind of love.
What will steadfast love look like in our lives this week?