Our family was here in Paris during the recent ISIS attacks that took the lives of 130 people. We watched the fear increase across Paris. Our Facebook feeds were becoming depressingly filled with fear-mongering hatred. In the recent days, I have read posts assuring us all that Syrian refugees are part of the Antichrist group. Others asserted bizarre notions that there were no women and children among the refugees. Others posited that these were not refugees at all but a group of Jihadists coming to take over western civilization.
The recent attack in San Bernadino, California re-awakened the sense of the randomness of terror, This one struck a bit closer to home. At our church in Mexico, our dear friends Norm and Jane Pifer introduced to us their daughter, Mandy. Our hearts broke to hear that Mandy’s boyfriend, Shannon, was one of the 14 slain during the senseless massacre. He died a hero protecting a colleague. This attack rolls in the new wave of hashtags, #Enough and #IGotYou
It’s the sheer randomness of violence that puts the terror in terrorism. There is no official declaration of war. No uniformed soldiers. No flag-bearing armored vehicles. Just the sense that somewhere, somehow, someone is going to detonate any sense of tranquility and predictability. With the randomness comes a numbing sense of hopelessness.
Random violence plays on the worst of our fears and changes our posture. The eyes glance sideward at the woman dressed head-to-toe in black. The older woman narrows her eyes at the sound of Arabic chatter. We dart from the unattended bag; a whole neighborhood is closed down while the bomb unit is deployed. When violent randomness rules, terror casts its unrelenting shadow.
Posting world-wide travel alerts is not the solution. Banning all refugees who are fleeing the same ISIS terror is inhumane. Suggesting that ALL Muslims are tagged is medieval, at best. Forbidding religious garb infringes on the freedom of all. Fear-based reactions will only keep the hate alive.
Yesterday, I posted photo of Brent sharing with a refugee family, homeless and on the streets near the Universite de Sorbonne in Paris. Our family of eleven travels on a shoestring, but we still try to make a difference wherever we are, no matter how small. When I posted the photo, I was blown away by our global community exploding with “shoe leather love“. Friends from multiple nations wanted to know how they could help and (in some small way) make a difference with marginalized Syrian refugees.
In an affront against the violence and hate so many have recently seen, friends began trickling money into our Paypal account. These monies have enabled us to buy food and care packages for families we are stumbling upon in Europe
The first gift was from a family six trying to make a Christmas vacation happen this year. Like us, that family also travels full-time and leaves a legacy of service in their wake. Another mom (who has recently had mounting medical bills ) gave saying, “This will buy one gift bag from each person in our family.” Another note, “We are with you. Here’s the $10. I was going to use at a café this afternoon.” Then another note saying, “Our family chooses to pool Christmas gift money that would be used on gifts for each other, and we give it away”.
Friends gave. Strangers gave, too. Lots of people gave $10. Suddenly with ten people giving $10. we had enough for ten more bags. Others gave more.
Immediately, this was no longer just our family making a small difference. It became an US. Our community. Our family and yours giving away a bottled water, a few protein snacks, some packs of dried soups. A small bit of hope dropped into a sea of fear. And yet, it makes a difference.
Then, a former graduate school student from our pre-marriage days weighed in. He wrote,
You could consider working through a local outreach organization so the initiative could be more sustainable…Compassion knows no bounds… To go fast and far this needs a community.
Let me translate this, Serving belongs to institutions-organizations with boards and titles. Random acts of kindness are not sustainable.
I get it. I have read the book, When Helping Hurts, and I have seen the damage abroad caused by ill-informed, well-meaning do gooders who take trips abroad for four days in hopes of snapping a Facebook profile shot of themselves with a starving orphan. I am well aware of the for-profit groups that ply the heartstrings of tourists with babies drugged to sleep.
Brent and I have also been on the flip side of this issue. When Peter (our friend who left the comment) knew us, we all were in the same seminary. Brent was the worship leader at a large church in Columbia, South Carolina. He and I were meeting regularly with mission boards. With Brent’s six years of Greek (and Hebrew) and my few years in the same, we were desired skilled workers. We started our marriage doing what was expected. He was a pastor. I was the wife.
Then, slowly, we began a journey that led us away from the titles and credentials of professionalized ministry. We left the board and session meetings behind. We turned from institutions where giving was dropping dollars into a plate and where missionaries lived in grander houses abroad than they did at home.
We wanted simplicity, freedom and the opportunity to get our own hands dirty. We wanted to make a difference in the context of family.
Life has taught us repeatedly that we need not be a part of an organized group to do right. Like travel, giving can be a lifestyle. You don’t have to wait for another person to authorize you to give. Here are a few realities we face in this situation and similar ones.
Lately, as we step off subways and trains, we walk past refugees. We cannot and will not look the other way. What we are doing is small. We are offering a drop of hope into a sea of pain. We are teaching our children that compassion triumphs over hate.
Tonight, we are grateful for a community that gave without our asking. Tomorrow there will be some children who cuddle a stuffed animal, will sleep under a blanket, will have some protein snack bars, three bags of dried soup and a special bag of hot cocoa and water, to take along as their families keep trekking looking for a new life. Maybe they will remember the smile of a stranger. Every smile matters.
Also, as a family, we have been on the receiving end of random acts of unsustainable kindness. Unsustainable, that is, since our momentary need met their momentary surplus. Some of those moments, in different places worldwide, gave us hope and reminded us that we were being carried.
We have been given much. In Belize, a Garifuna man noticed that we were stranded on the road, late at night. He gave us the battery from his own truck, refusing payment. In a part of northern Mexico where drug cartels were active, a Mexican family invited us to park the RV, have dinner and stay in their home. In Paris, shortly after the terrorist attacks, a Kurdistani restaurant owner gave our family a late night dinner; he also refused payment.
Such experiences of mercy have certainly colored our perspective.
Two millenia ago, a Jewish teacher walked right into the midst of an ethnically charged situation to drive home a point on compassion. The Jews and Samaritans had deeply divergent views on how, where and with which book to worship God. Therefore, as the record states, Jews had “no dealings” with Samaritans.
Highway robbers attacked a Jewish man, leaving him beaten beside the road. Jesus notes that two educated religious leaders–fellow Jews– “passed by on the other side”. A Samaritan man stopped, gave the injured man first aid and transported him to shelter for which he paid.
As the story has been passed down through the English language, a morally-charged four-letter word persistently accompanies this nameless helper. We all know him as the good Samaritan.
For those that follow Jesus teaching, the final words of this narrative come down as a firm imperative:
“Go and do likewise.”
Similarly, in another context, Jesus takes his followers to the final judgment when appropriate rewards are given for acts on earth. He welcomes some into “the kingdom prepared”. Jesus states the reason in Matthew 25.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.
For those that follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, heaven and hell hang in the balance. It is the oft-neglected teaching that now, this moment, lasts forever. The whole world, and our Teacher from above, watch for our reaction.
Sustainability is the watchword for responsible compassion. Community development, employment training and adequate housing make good, long-term sense. Churches and parachurch organizations have the long-term relationships and infrastructure to initiate and sustain these.
Yet there is still something to be said about the isolated act of immediate kindness. Unsustainable? In light of the years to come, a balance sheet may or may not show persistent income. In light of the ages to come, who can put a price tag on hope? Random compassion, even if for a moment, casts its light on the darkest of situations.
Random kindness wages its own war. A sandwich, a few euros, or a drink all tend to defuse the bombs of suspicion. A stranger’s act of kindness initiates a speedy disarmament of discrimination.
The disarmament is unilateral. Especially when a cloud of suspicion (if not outright animosity) casts its pall on a nation’s psyche, kindness given and received tends to break down anger on both sides.
It’s the randomness of compassionate acts that put the passion into compassion. There is no official recognition, nor tax deductible receipts. No professional credentialing. No political or ecclesiastical agenda. Such compassion comes with a sense that somewhere, somehow, someone is going to bring a sense of hope in the midst of overwhelming need.
Random compassion dispels the worst of our fears. The night before the attacks in Paris, it was a Muslim man that walked a half mile with us to find the right hotel. There, a Muslim Moroccan woman warmly welcomed us and showed compassion on our children.
When random acts of kindness occur, hope sheds its light.
“Go and do likewise.”