How We See ‘The Other’

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the challenges of racism in the context of World Concern’s work globally.  Here in the US, the issue of race dominates our headlines almost daily. We also bring our own background and experiences to the story.  But as is clear from scripture, Christ calls His followers to an entirely different standard—the standard of how we ‘see’ those different to us.

But race is part of a wider issue. At its heart, it is about how we see ‘the other’ – neighbor, passer-by, enemy.

At World Concern, how we see ‘the other’ is core to our transformational work.

This last weekend I was challenged by something I read in the Bible, in the Book of John, chapter 9.  It’s the story of the encounter with the man who was blind from birth.  In brief, Jesus and his disciples saw this individual, but the narrative has a blunt beginning—the disciples remark, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”  No soft entry, no introduction; rather “whose fault is this?”  Don’t we do this all the time?  We see someone, perhaps of different nationality, perhaps with a disability, perhaps homeless, and we immediately categorize the person.  “They are like this because…” We put them in a category to define them, to perhaps stigmatize, perhaps blame. 

I am indebted to Paul Miller for his insight into this passage from his book Love Walked Among Us:

“The disciples see a blind man; Jesus sees a man who happens to be blind.  The disciples see an item for debate; Jesus sees a person, a human being like himself. They see a sin, the effect of man’s work; Jesus sees need, the potential for God’s work.  The disciples see a completed tragedy and wonder who the villain was; Jesus sees a story half-told, with the best yet to come.”

When we look at someone, do we see a problem, a category, or a person?  We put people in boxes to control our own discomfort, and almost certainly to set ourselves at a distance from them.

In our work, we have this problem, but we try to recognize and remedy it when it happens.  We often talk about “beneficiaries” “recipients” or “the poor.”  Worst, as the world becomes more data driven, we reduce people to a number.

But this innocuous encounter tells a different story.  The disciples saw a blind man; Jesus saw a man, who happened to be blind.  The difference is subtle but ultimately transformative; it humanizes the ‘other’ and opens up the door to compassion and kindness.

World Concern President, Nick Archer, listens to community members in a rural village in Chad. At World Concern, our work starts with listening and learning.

We work in communities of very diverse needs.  Are they poor?  Often, yes.  Are they non-literate? Maybe.  But fundamentally, who do we see, as in really see? It may be easier to categorize, maybe even an automatic reaction; but we try to see the individual who, regardless of what I think or what the world tells me, is made absolutely in the image of God.

Seeing ‘the other’ is core to what we, as the people of Christian faith, are called to. It is what we, as World Concern, are called to. In partnering with us and being part of our story, we invite you into this same journey.

The Vital Importance of Water

Animals drink from a water hole in South Sudan.

During my time living and working with World Concern in East Africa in the 1990s, I remember visiting a community in the Juba valley of Somalia. This village was hundreds of miles from any safe water source, so World Concern rehabilitated a well in the area. As I approached the massive area that surrounded the well, an astonishing sight came into view. Multitudes of people and animals crowded around the water source, trudging through mud to reach the water.

As I watched people drink from this well, it really hit me how critical this vital resource—water—is to human survival, and to any possibility of escaping the grip of extreme poverty, sickness, and hopelessness.

People and animals surround a water point.
People and animals surround a water point in Somalia during the 2011 Horn of Africa famine.

My thoughts shifted to the thousands of other communities who were (and still are) waiting for water. The impact of water-borne diseases on people—of parasitic infections on children—is staggering. Children’s bodies are depleted of nourishment, growth is stunted, and their systems weakened by intestinal worms that suck the nutrients from their food and cause constant pain. Young girls and women spend the better part of each day walking 5 to 10 kilometers carrying 20-liter jugs of water on their heads or backs…

And I asked myself, how can we change this story?

It’s hard to imagine living your entire life lacking water and under the threat of water-borne illness. I only had one experience in Somalia when I got sick from water—and it wasn’t even from drinking it! I had a rule: Never eat salad. As long as I ate cooked food, I knew the bacteria and parasites would be killed in the cooking process. But for whatever reason, I decided one time that the hotel I was staying at was nice enough that I would eat a salad there. Boy, was I wrong. I got so sick. I won’t go into the gory details, but suffice it to say, I won’t ever forget that experience.

The fact is, the tiny droplets of water that had come in contact with the lettuce in the washing process contained microorganisms that I couldn’t see. The hidden danger in the water was invisible.

I learned my lesson, and thankfully recovered in a few days. But millions of people don’t. They live with constant sickness that ravages their health and traps them in a cycle of suffering.

A girl draws water from a pump well.

Their only chance at freedom from sickness and suffering is a sustainable source of clean, safe drinking water. And the good news is, that’s possible. I’ve witnessed the dramatic impact clean water has on lives and entire communities.

We can change someone’s life by changing the quality and purity of the water they drink. I don’t know what else is quite so life-giving as when you give a community water. It actually makes me emotional to say that. When we connect with people at the point of human need, it’s profound.

Africa, in a lot of ways, shaped my theology. And I believe that water is a reflection of God’s goodness to us. The hope and opportunity clean water gives people is so powerful.

Water is life.

Nick Archer in Somalia.
World Concern President Nick Archer lived and served with World Concern in East Africa in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Around the World, Reconciliation with Our ‘Neighbor’ is What’s Needed

One of the most powerful and timeless parables that Jesus told was the parable of the good Samaritan.  The term Samaritan is recognizable in many languages and when used, people understand what it means, even if they’ve never read the bible for themselves.  We even have organizations named such!

But let’s recall the context.  Jesus tells the parable in response to a question by a man trying to justify himself, trying to set himself apart, superior, better. The question? “Who is my neighbor?” 

This itself was in response to the question ‘what is the greatest commandment?’ Love God with all your might, and your neighbor as yourself.  But the man was not satisfied with that.

Jesus tells a parable that utilized one of the most stark and entrenched divisions of his day.  We read this in the 21st century and often think of it as a ‘nice’ story, but in Jesus day, it was anything but nice.  It was pointed, provocative, and definitely insulting to a whole lot of people who thought themselves better.

Why do I mention this?  Because in this parable, we are faced ourselves, in our day, with issues that offend—some would say, insult—certain groups.  Right now, racism has come once more into the foreground, and the people of God are challenged as to how to respond—as they should be.  What will we do?  Will our own prejudice get in the way?

World Concern, in its work around the globe, faces these issues every day.  From the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar to the long-term conflicts between the Dinka and Nuer tribes of South Sudan.  Let’s be honest, the world has a global problem; we here in the US simply have our own variant, rooted in history, which so many of these issues are.

The reality is, the scourge of racism, tribalism, and clannism—systematic oppression of one people over another—is endemic in our world.  It is a virus far, far more damaging than COVID-19.  One of the things that World Concern has learned through our work, successes and failures, is that ultimately, it’s about power and dignity. Who has the power, and who doesn’t, and how do those in power wield that power?  In our Transformational Development work, exposing issues of power, and giving voice to the oppressed, is at the core of what we do.  Valuing the voice of ‘the other’ is central to what we do.

This is ultimately life-changing… people begin to have hope, they understand they have value and meaning, and that all powerful component… dignity. That’s a game changer! People, whether a tribe or an individual gradually realize that they don’t have to always see themselves as the left outs, the bottom of the pile, the worthless.  They have value and meaning.

Many of you who engage with what we do have a hand in these lifechanging encounters. Thank you. You are helping bridge divides that have been in existence for generations.

When Jesus told that parable, he was essentially saying to us, “The equation has to change.”  You no longer have the freedom to love God, yet discriminate against your neighbor due to history, race, color, or whatever other factor you want to add.  This is all our challenge; this is the world’s challenge.

Jesus ended by asking his questioner, “Who do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” To which the questioner replied, “The man who showed him mercy.”  The questioner could not even bring himself to use the word ‘Samaritan’!

And Jesus answered, “Go and do the same.”  May God give all of us the grace and courage to face those prejudices latent in our own hearts.  As you pray for, and give to, the work that World Concern does around the world, pray that our staff and teams continue in humility, wisdom, and the courage to reflect the Good News of God’s work of reconciliation for ALL of us.