Sunday, August 27, 2006

Charity vs. Justice and what Erica really does

Yesterday was a beautiful day in Fianarantsoa, Madagascar – an extremely welcome relief from the seemingly endless wintry days of the last couple of weeks. Unfortunately, that meant that after the ground warmed up and the air became balmy with springtime moisture, that Sunday morning dawned drenched in a cold fog. I slept comfortably until 6:45 am or so, and then peeked outside only to decide the best place to spend this morning celebrating a day of rest by pretending like the outside world didn’t exist.

So I got cleaned up and made myself a luxurious breakfast for bed, then returned to my cozy bedroom to channel surf on my satellite radio. After skipping through the usual selection of news that wasn’t doing much for my current restful state of mind (and deciding I needed more brainfood than music), I landed on the program “Speaking of Faith,” with the somewhat airy hostess Christa Tippet, on NPR. I tend to have a somewhat ambivalent view of this program with its sometimes ethereal selection of topics, but today her interview was with Dr. David Hilfiger on the topic of urban poverty, especially in relation to our nation’s new awareness of our own urban poor after the Hurricane Katrina debacle.

Dr. Hilfiger has spent the last quarter of a century working (and living) in homeless shelters in the Washington, D.C., area. I figured his experiences on working with the poor might mirror some of the experiences I’ve had over here – especially since moving to an urban center – so I paused to listen. As it was, his interview was very frank and easy to listen to, and I found it simultaneously a relief and discouraging that he still struggles to express many aspects of his experience. I also was taken with the similarities and differences between living with this vocation in the developed and developing world. For example, he cited that one of the difficulties he faces is the difference in his race and socio-economic status (white, blessed with opportunities, and affluent vs. black, limited, and poor), but in his experience, he stated that that difference has never been thrown back in his face. Here we struggle with that same issue, but, whether it be a carry-over from the colonial period, I very often find that very difference being a pivot on which my daily life revolves. It is often the single key factor in what opens and closes doors to me here – and that’s not an aspect of this experience that I enjoy at all.

But as the interview went on, Dr. Hilfiger put into words a distinction that I haven’t been able to explain to myself between charity and justice work. He clearly categorizes the work he’s been doing for the last 22 years as “charity” work. He then goes on to describe charity as the following (necessarily paraphrased):

Charity is mandated – charity is given to satisfy ourselves – we are in control when we give – we decide who we give to and often how what we give gets used.

He describes charity as something we use to address a need in ourselves, to make ourselves feel better about an issue. It’s an immediate response. Justice, on the other hand, is working to change the underlying system that creates the need for charity. Both of these actions are a never-ending process – we have been promised that the poor will always be with us and life isn’t fair – but the type of work is very different.

And I think this is where the fundamental difficulty in explaining to people the “what I do” over here arises from. It would be very easy for me to say that I distribute mosquito nets to protect children from mosquito bites and malaria, or ensure vaccine distribution to protect children from childhood diseases; both of these activities are necessary to saving children’s lives now. But both of those activities fall into the category of charity work. This may also be why people perk up if I mention going into relief work or responding to disaster situations. That’s charity work – and it’s easier to understand.

But I don’t do charity work here. Not that I have anything against it – it’s just not my job description. By this definition, my work here is in justice. Now, there are a lot of times that these things can overlap and I spend some time in the grey areas, but mostly my work is intended to change the way of doing things so that in the long run the system is more fair. We try to make sure that systems are established and educational resources are available and reduce the need for us to distribute mosquito nets or vaccines.

Perhaps this is a valuable definition for communicating what I do to people back home – but it’s also a very useful reflection for myself as I continue my work here in Madagascar and to search out my future path. Sometimes I forget that my work in justice is important. Sometimes it’s frustrating not to be able to say that I distributed 60 mosquito nets and to feel as if I’ve made a concrete contribution to society today. Many days I feel like working in charity would be a lot “easier.” Still, underneath it all I continue to feel called to working for justice and towards that unreachable goal that someday, we won’t have the need to give things in charity.

Finally, a return to that old, tired proverb:

Give a man a fish – that’s charity.

Teaching a man to fish and ensuring that he’s allowed to continue fishing all his days – that’s justice.

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