Testimony (it’s a long one…)

By my definition, a testimony is the re-telling of a personal experience that could perhaps encourage another person, challenge them, or even affirm what they already know and believe. I debated about telling these stories on our blog as intentions can be skewed when things aren’t expressed in person. I share these stories as a way of describing one of the most significant social challenges we continually processed during our travel.

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One of the most challenging components of our trip was dealing with begging and peddling. This is a question each traveler must decide how he or she will handle. In each of the third world and developing countries we visited, we were consistently confronted with the giving dilemma. Many times we felt our white skin came with the expectation of a handout or help of some sort. On various levels we debated this learned behavior. If we gave to someone, were we reinforcing this idea that white people will give something if asked? If we did give, what should we give? If we did give, how was that gift being used? What if that donation was going to the pocket of an “owner”? Aren’t we called to have compassion and give to those in need? How can we help one and walk away from the next? Why is the person begging? What is their situation? Were they really in need? What is the definition of needy or impoverished? Who actually had an honest story? Are there jobs available in this area? Is this person able-bodied and able to get a job? Is this person being discriminated against because of where they are from or a physical or mental disability? Is their situation truly desperate? It’s not often easy to assess these things quickly.

Each country was different and whatever system we had established in one place seemed to require evolution in the next. At times I determined ahead of time that I would not give anything to anyone–this was probably my general response. I just became completely overwhelmed by how many people needed help and knowing I couldn’t help them all made me sometimes feel like I shouldn’t help anyone. Thankfully my husband has an extremely compassionate heart coupled with the ability to think rationally and intentionally which brought good balance to the dilemma. He often made sure we were buying extra bananas when we were at the market and when we left, he would give them out to those who he felt were truly in need. He was realistic, knowing we couldn’t buy enough bananas to help everyone but he was continuously moved to give to those he could. He felt especially inclined toward those who were obviously handicapped as in some countries handicapped individuals are severely ostracized. Many times we passed handicapped people begging on the street and he would say, “You want to go find that guy some bananas?” And we’d be off in search of bananas.

John also set a good example for me in how he interacted with these folks. It was the norm for him, if he had the chance and the person spoke English, to spend at least a few minutes talking to them. Even if he wasn’t going to give the person anything, or buy anything, he still wanted to treat them kindly and with respect. It took me awhile to catch on to this style, but eventually I stopped deferring to him and started to learn myself. I always admired John for his way with people and ability to relate and make conversation and laugh with just about anyone.

There was a short series of events occurring during our time in Africa that particularly impacted me…

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While in Cape Town we were frequently asked for meals to be purchased or to buy things on the street or beach that we did not want. I had set my mind to say no to anyone who asked, and many did. I felt justified in this because I really couldn’t tell who was giving me a line and who was being truthful. On our last evening in Cape Town we met a gentleman selling bead work. He first asked if we wanted to buy something while we were eating dinner and we declined but then we bumped into him a second time on the beach and he asked again. John struck up a conversation with him and we learned a bit about Honest. He was a teacher from Zimbabwe with a wife and several children for whom he was trying to save enough money to get across the border. We chatted with him for some time and both sensed he was being sincere in his story. We gave each other a knowing look and gave a small contribution to Honest, which he thought was for the purchase of one of his beautiful beaded fish. We did not want the beaded fish, and really the time and effort put into its creation was worth more than the small bit of South African rand we were giving him. It was interesting because we had more or less decided we would not give money to people, only food, but there was something different about this situation and this man in which we felt compelled to break our rules.

Several days later we were in Zimbabwe. On our second day there, a woman I had spent part of the morning visiting with asked me directly for my shoes. I was taken aback by her bold question and told her I would have to think about it. My first response was “no way,” but I wasn’t sure that was the right answer. I wrestled with her question the rest of the day. I didn’t want to be part of creating or contributing to a culture that assumes white people will give handouts–I didn’t want to give them to her just because she had asked. But I also didn’t want to use those reasons as an excuse not to give her the shoes. That night I lay in bed thinking about what I would do and really felt like Christ spoke to me through a very logical thought process. I realized that my reaction was no because 1) I didn’t care for her approach, which really was no different than most of the beggars we had come in contact with over the past months–she was asking out of her desperation; and 2) I had conditioned myself to say no to anyone who asked. I wasn’t taking each person on a case-by-case basis. Part of my reason for always saying no was never being sure what the persons situation was and if they were really being straight with me. But here was this woman who I knew had five children, no husband, hardly any food, carried 20 liters of water on her head daily, worked her small plot of land, and only had flip flops to wear. For crying out loud, Erin! This woman is IN NEED! Not to mention I had been thinking, prior to our trip to Zimbabwe, that I might give my shoes to someone before we left South Africa. I unintentionally purchased them a half size too big and was ready for a pair of shoes that fit. It “just so happened” that this woman’s size was exactly the size of my shoes. It was really good for me to process through all of this in my head and by the end of the internal debate I knew I wanted to give her the shoes.

The questions of whether or not to give weren’t all resolved in that one instance and many times after that day I was approached and asked to give and said “no” and felt that was the appropriate response in those specific circumstances. Being approached did not become any easier after seven months of international travel. Neither have I come up with a perfect system that fits into my desire to follow the example and calling of Christ while not being taken advantage of. I know it is something I will continue to wrestle with even as I am home and walk the streets of downtown Portland. I know we aren’t the only ones who have walked down the street and had these internal conversations and I’d be pleased to hear other perspectives. We certainly know that none of what we did helped anyone significantly which made us more aware and gave us a greater desire to contribute to individuals and organizations who are on the ground floor doing the sustainable and long term work empowering local people to improve and change their lives.

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2 Responses to Testimony (it’s a long one…)

  1. Bethany says:

    Erin,
    Thanks so much for sharing your ongoing processing of these difficult issues. I appreciate reading of your intention to treat each situation individually, despite the unremitting onslaught throughout your time away.

  2. Ridgely says:

    John and Erin,

    I can’t tell you how much I have appreciated and enjoyed reading your blog throughout your travels. I have accomplished, vicariously, my lifelong dream of doing just what you have done!

    Your struggles are universal! My approach to this problem locally is to only give food, i.e., I will take the person to a restaurant and I will pay for their meal, but I will not give them $$. Some take me up on this, some don’t, I figure this filters out the truly intentional from the unintentional!

    As far as the global issue is concerned, we have chosen to financially support those organizations who are, indeed, helping at the grassroots level. We have found most of them through the Missions Conference held yearly in Vancouver, BC. We can talk personally with those involved and that way can ensure that our donations are being utilized properly.

    In all other situations, it’s a case by case basis and we trust the HS to help us know when to give and when to withhold.

    God bless you both!

    Ridgely and Wally

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