“I think we’re finally figuring this fieldworker stuff out!” I declared at the six-month mark of our white fields workin Durban. There was a steep learning curve trying to find our way though the Durban outreach efforts and Rick and I were becoming more confident in our mission to serve and lead. At the same time there was a multitude of lessons that God was teaching us to grow us into His character. About this time we were faced with the challenge of showing mercy while partnering it with acts of justice.
“… what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy…”
The struggle came into play while we were preparing for the International Family Bible Conference, situated in a stunning mountain setting about 3 hours from Durban. It is an exceptional week because of the diversity of the attendees. It is a week where social and cultural boundaries are lifted and rather the diversity is shared. For example, during the assemblies we sing a balance of English and Zulu and other African languages praise songs. The conference has an friendly and open atmosphere and is a glimpse of a vision of the Kingdom.
In the spirit of inclusiveness, the Bible Conference tuition is subsidized for the attendees who are on a limited budget. The tuition fees for low-income attendees are $35(USD) for teens and $70 for adults. Children are free. Tuition includes transportation, lodging and food for 5 days. However small this cost compares to most North American bible schools, the cost of the week is monumental to many here in South Africa. The cost is 1/2 what an employed person gets paid in a month making minimum wage and is 3 times what an unemployed person gets a month in grant money.
As Americans working with the poor in South Africa it is almost effortless to live in a state of mercy. Can I lend a brother a few dollars to pay for his electricity? Two dollars will run his fridge for a month. Can I buy groceries for a homeless young mother? Six dollars will feed her and her toddler for a week. Can I run the ecclesia’s Sunday school program with fancy crafts and delicious snacks? I have fresh Crayola markers, glitter glue and construction paper cascading out of my craft cupboard and what’s another package of cookies tossed into my grocery cart? And in this case, can we sponsor an entire ecclesia of interested friends and hardworking brothers and sisters to experience The Week of Their Lives traveling to a spectacular mountain range to learn about God and to connect with believers from around the world for the same cost of our family to attend? We can (and tend to say yes more more often than not) but is it really helping out?
One particular sister who lives in a particularly low-income township neighborhood worked tirelessly for the people in her ecclesia to attend. Beginning 4 months before the start of the conference she had baked muffins every week. She got the help of a few teens to sell them door-to-door in the township. She and her muffins had raised enough money to pay the tuition for everyone who wanted to go the last few years. This was certainly an act of compassionate mercy on her part.
No doubt exhausted by her dedicated efforts, she asked Rick and I to help the ecclesia fundraise this year. We agreed and held a meeting with all those interested in attending. Opening the meeting, Rick asked for a list of the names of all the people who were planning on going to the conference. There were thirty names on the list, teens, baptized adults and a handful of children with their parents. Then Rick, always ready to calculate big numbers, asked everyone to list out how much money they had saved so far. His calculator-brain got the night off. The sum was very simple: $0. Thirty people wanted to attend the conference but not one of them had started saving for it. When we asked how they were planning to attend and it turns out that they were waiting for us to fundraise for them. The charitable gesture this sister had done had bred expectation and entitlement. And now this problem was in our hands. We needed to raise nearly $1000 in a month or we feared a whole ecclesia would be staying home from the conference.
Rick and I understood what we had to do and it wasn’t going to be easy. We were not going to be fundraising for them. If we continued to only give and give with asking nothing on their part, they wouldn’t develop. It’s something we do as we’re raising our children. If we never give our kids to opportunities to clean up after themselves or feed themselves or to make decisions, they’ll struggle growing from children to self-sufficient adults. As they’ve grown, we’ve gradually changed our caregiving from doing everything for them (mercy) toward the direction of developing and encouraging skills (justice). Otherwise in the long run we’d be harming both them and ourselves. In the same manner these eager conference attenders needed help to attend an unaffordable conference and we have provided the subsidy (mercy) and they needed to work to pay the tuition (justice) or they run the risk of an unhealthy dependency.
We told the group that we would help them come up ideas on how to fundraise and strategize how to implement them. That night Rick filled the whiteboard with the group’s brainstormed ideas of ways to make money. Then they voted on the top three ideas: 1)ask for side-jobs on the weekends, 2)host a movie afternoon at their hall and 3) sell popcorn at the soccer games on the near-by field. We wrote out point-by-point steps for each project and assigned owners. Rick and I only took on the tasks that they couldn’t do themselves, like sending an email.
I would like to say there was a happy ending, tallying up the raised funds to the exact amount needed and to announce that all 30 people worked hard to pay their way, went to the conference and are now developed, hard-working, responsible contributors to their spiritual development. But it didn’t end that way. I would also like to report you that Rick and I sat back and didn’t get too involved in their fundraising projects. But we did. Despite a month of constant concern; taking on other people’s assignments and even losing loaned seed money, none of their fundraising ideas produced a cent. As much as we were glad to see them, we were flabbergasted when almost all of the thirty people showed up at the conference. When their fundraising efforts weren’t successful they found other people who were willing to cover their costs. Not surprisingly, we aren’t the only ones who want to believe that paying someone’s full tuition is harmless.
On the other side of the conference week, we see that even though our plan to help them raise funds didn’t work the way we expected it to our relationship with them has changed for the better. They‘re not as likely to depend on Rick and Sonya as one-way givers. They now see that we are willing to work alongside them, but not for them. It’s never easy, we fail more often than not. I’m not terribly confident that we’ve figured out how to build a healthy reciprocal relationships using the marriage of justice and mercy but I am confident that the Lord is using these challenges to teach us His way.
Rick and Sonya