Thursday, July 20, 2006

from 850 newsletter (Jena Lee)

There's something romantic about Africa. Throughout history, its people, its tragedies, its beauty and its wonders have caused outsiders to romanticize the continent. When Western explorers documented their first steps and journeys onto the shores of the African continent in the late 1800s, Americans read with wonder and intrigue about an untouched place of people, animals and land that exceeded the imagination. Even today, National Geographic captures stories of people who are exotic and beautiful. Travelers, photographers and wanderers have dreamed of visiting places that are contrary to and seemingly far removed from a Western lifestyle.

I remember my first thoughts of Africa. I, too, had romanticized it as a place of simplicity, poverty, culture and beauty. To many Americans, Africa has simply belonged in the travel magazines, in the headlines of the newspapers and in the argument for why American children should finish their dinners. I have found, though, that we tend to sentimentalize that which is different from us because we do not truly know a person or a place.

I am writing from a small village in East Africa, traveling with my colleagues from Jars of Clay. The band members, who are also the founders of Blood:Water Mission, have come to build relationships with people and to see the work of their growing organization.

We are living in a village where there is no running water. No electricity. The conditions are much less luxurious than most can imagine. We interact with people whose lives have been defined and held captive by extreme poverty and disease. Children are malnourished and most people subsist on less than a dollar a day. A one-room, mud-walled hut in a remote Kenyan village is drastically different than a furnished, air-conditioned, two-car-garage house in suburban America. A hole dug in the ground with a stick fence surrounding it does not look or feel anything like a porcelain, flushing toilet. Languages, landscape, food and traditions are so very different than what we are familiar with in the United States. It's easy to pick up the camera and capture those differences between us. And yet, no one in our group is talking about such things.

Despite all the obvious differences that exist between North America and Africa, our experiences here have shown us the beauty of our similarities. Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, speaks about the I-Thou and I-It relationships. The I-Thou relationship occurs when two people see each other, simply, as people created by God in His image. There is no qualification of poor or rich or us or them. I-Thou sees the humanity and the divinity within each person. Conversely, I-It exists when a person sees the other as an object to be used to serve his or her interest. It gives a person permission to define, label and objectify the other person.

I've seen how our romanticizing of Africa has caused us to regard Africans as the It instead of the Thou. We have the tendency to come into these places as if we were in a Spielbergian wildlife park, seeing only the separating differences instead of the inviting similarities. We are horrified by the tragedy of poverty, which often estranges us more than connects us. When we focus only on the contrasts, we fail to see the other as a brother or a sister, as a reflection of the image of God, who is equally loved and valued by Him.

Seeing a person for who he or she truly is can be challenging because we are broken people who easily assume the hierarchy of importance, intelligence, development, materialism and position in the world. We feel better when we can put people in a box or under a label, usually underneath our own status. When we relate with our friends in Africa, it's easy to label them as poor and unfortunate, but that is only because we do not know them.

Imagine what the world look like if we could surpass the tendency to see someone as It, and instead see the sacred in every person. What if our response to suffering was a desire to see people for who they are and to learn from them about their experiences instead of making a one-sided attempt to heroically pull them out of their circumstances? It takes discipline of the heart and mind to treat others as Thou, but when this radical transformation occurs, we can no longer keep Africa in a place that is distant, strange and objectifying. Our friends may live in a world very different than our own, but when we look at and interact with one another, we begin to see a reflection of ourselves and of God in one another.

I feel as though we are experiencing a taste of that relationship right here in this village, where lasting friendships are being built between Americans and Kenyans. The differences and unfamiliar realities exist, but the communion of music, volleyball games, bellyaching laughter, prayer, dancing and meals filled with honest conversations overlooks them. When others become Thou to us, we can no longer romanticize the exotic and the unknown. We can simply celebrate the new lens through which we view, know and love one another.

Jena Lee is the executive director for Blood:Water Mission and contributed the reflections in the photo book Hope in the Dark by photojournalist Jeremy Cowart. The book is available from RELEVANT.


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