Saturday, August 20, 2011

Changing the World

Do you know the feeling of being only one person? Wanting to do something meaningful in the world but being only one person? You know, I don’t want to have a God-complex or be paternalistic or have a “Savior-attitude” that somehow the world needs me, but I also want to participate in life in a way that might actually contribute to human flourishing and the building up of the common good, i.e. cooperate in meaningful ways in the Coming Kingdom if you want to corner this preacher and ask him what he’s really talking about.

So I’m one man, but I want to use my energies and life in a way that might have some sort of meaningful “impact” in the world. Well, I began to feel a funny kind of angst earlier this year when I met a young man at Grace Chapel. Emmanuel Habimana is a Tutsi from Rwanda- he was in Lincoln for a short while working on a documentary for National Geographic in cooperation with the University of Nebraska. In the horrific genocide of 1994, both of Emmanuel’s parents and a number of his siblings were murdered. You can read a bit more about Emmanuel here: 

I have to admit that I’ve always been drawn to the story of the Rwanda genocide having thought a lot about the horrors of those three months in the spring of 1994. Long before I met Emmanuel, the Rwandan people always held a special place in my heart, though I had never met a Rwandan until now. I enjoyed getting to know Emmanuel a little bit, despite only having met him not too long before he returned to Rwanda and also began to feel a kind of draw to consider perhaps visiting Emmanuel in Kigali at some point in the future. But admittedly, I felt a little conflicted, you see because I’ve given much of the last 7-8 years of my life to serving the Haitian people, taking trips there and seeking to increase involvement with Haiti for my family and our church. It almost felt like I was “betraying” my commitment to Haiti in thinking about another country like Rwanda. I know that sounds a bit silly, but there are only so many days in a week, so much ability and energy in one person, and anyone who knows anything at all about Haiti knows that all the ability, energy and focus of one person for a country like Haiti is only a drop of water in a vast and endless ocean of need.

Well, do you know when God puts together one of those “moments” when you have a bit of convergence and clarity comes as to why two thoughts (loving Haiti and finding interest in Rwanda in my case), while they may seem incompatible, in fact are not? that perhaps the perceived problem was never the problem, but rather a lack of imagination?

… so I’m reading Paul Farmer’s book Haiti: After the Earthquake, and I get to p. 183 of the book and I hit something of a goldmine that brings convergence, clarity and even relief to my existential angst. Let me quote from Farmer and then I will reflect a little further after the long quote:

In 1995, Rwanda, still reeling from the genocide, was by many measures the poorest country on the face of the earth. It would be hard to imagine a tougher situation-even comparing it to Haiti after the quake. Although Rwanda lost neither a third of its housing stock nor all its federal buildings, it had surely lost more than a quarter of its civil service. Many of the other surviving civil servants were themselves deeply involved in or tarnished by the genocide. After the cessation of hostilities in Rwanda, scores of humanitarian groups and NGOs (small and large) jockeyed for position; most did not care to coordinate their efforts with other NGOs, much less with the interim government trying to restore order and basic services. To the west, in refugee camps in Zaire, hidden among the real refugees, were many of the architects of the genocide. International arms dealers were still shipping them weapons, and cross-border raids and clashes were continuing apace. Rwanda’s rich farmlands lay fallow and hunger was rampant. Many international observers were willing, in 1995, to write off Rwanda as a lost cause.

By 2010, the country would have been almost unrecognizable to the pessimists. Kigali, the capital city, was bustling and clean; new buildings were going up in droves. The country’s GDP had more than trebled in the preceding decade. Education and health care had become, over those years, far more available to the average citizen, and an anticorruption campaign had yielded fruit: a good deal of investment poured in from abroad, from the large diaspora, and from within Rwanda itself. In 2010, hundreds of NGOs were still in the country, but coordination with local and national authorities was the rule in every sense of the word. The country’s national development plan predicted that, by 2020, Rwanda would no longer require foreign assistance.

After working in Haiti and Rwanda for several years, I’d become accustomed to tracing a triangle between Haiti, Harvard, and Rwanda. In September, for long hours en route to Africa and back to Haiti, stuck in planes, I thought mostly about reconstruction. One vision of reconstruction that I’ve repeated passim at the risk of sounding like a broken record was rebuilding public infrastructure to strengthen sovereignty and basic social economic rights. Although building back better seemed already a tired cliché, Rwanda had built sounder structures, reshaped its engagement with foreign aid, and expanded human capacity by investing in health, education and gender equity. Could those billions pledged for Haiti’s reconstruction be translated into a plan like this one? Could some of the larger projects generate jobs that would transfer skills and draw some of the diaspora back to Haiti?

Questions like these led us back to our plans for the Mirebalais teaching hospital, our most ambitious effort to date. We sought commission approval not for funding- we had raised most of the money- but for legitimacy and coordination with other reconstruction efforts that fit into a national plan. The last stop on the triangle was thus central Haiti, where we were about the lay the hospital’s cornerstone.

Mirebalais was, in a way, the birthplace of Partners in Health (the group of which Farmer was co-founder). Many of the founders (Ophelia, Father Fritz and Mamito) and other supporters (including Didi and her family) had first met there in 1983. That year, almost three decades ago, we began to understand the poor quality of medical care available in rural Haiti. Although I hadn’t yet started medical school, it didn’t require an M.D. to understand that a five-minute exchange with a harried Haitian doctor with no lab or other diagnostics was not the recipe for delivering care. And it didn’t require a degree in pharmacology to imagine that the various portions poured into corncob-stoppered bottled were not likely to have more than a placebo effect-or worse.

My experiences in Mirebalais that first brutal and instructive year inspired a life-long desire to see, in Haiti, a hospital worthy of its people.

And so the convergence came together on many fronts. For one, I saw that the attempts of building it back better since the 1994 mass killings described by Natalia Ledford as “the most efficient genocide the world has ever seen” (see the Ledford comment in my blogpost link to Emmanuel above), had actually been accomplished in Rwanda, even if only proximately so. For two, this sort of contrast between Rwanda and Haiti today reminded me of a similiar situation about two hours to the north of Lincoln, NE where I live. Since 2008, I have traveled to Walthill, NE every June. Walthill is on the Omaha reservation and home to many Omaha natives. Despite having a proud history, life on the rez is depressing; there are few jobs, so unemployment among the Omaha Indians is extremely high, suicide rates are high, alcoholism off the charts, kids grow up on the streets with a general sense of hopelessness, violence and poverty are among some of the highest rates in the entire state of Nebraska. Yet if you travel a mere ten minutes to the North of Walthill, you meet another tribe with an entirely different situation: you meet the Winnebago Indians. The first year I was in Walthill in 2008, I wanted to buy some gifts to bring back to my family, to share with them some cultural artifacts of Indian culture, so I was told to go to Winnebago. Why Winnebago, since I was trying to learn about the Omaha? The answer was fairly simple, well, because the Winnebago have a nice retail gift shop- there's really nothing in Walthill. So I went with some friends and drove the entire ten minutes to Winnebago and immediately, though I was still on the rez, I noticed a nice town, not run down at all. When you travel to Winnebago, NE the first thing you see is how nice the town is and how the the economy seems to be chugging along. The native kids love to play basketball and in Winnebago the public basketball courts have a rubberized synthetic deep rich blue material to run on (easier on the knees than concrete)- even growing up in middle America, I had never seen such beautiful public basketball courts- to be blunt, it was amazing to see them on an Indian reservation. Walthill is a completely different story- the burned-out houses, the lack of a vibrant economy, the general “run-down” nature of the town, the poverty of the place can be really hard to see. One Native man said to our church group a couple of years ago, that every year when we come it’s as if God’s angels have come too; but that all the while the vultures circle in the air and once we leave, the death-loving birds descend on the entire place.

Why is Winnebago thriving economically, while Walthill is not? Well, it started with Lance Morgan, a Winnebago tribal member who was educated as an attorney at Harvard and who returned to Winnebago in 1994 to start Ho-Chunk, Inc. an economic development corporation owned by the Winnebago tribe of Nebraska. Since 1994, Ho-Chunk, Inc. has grown from one employee to over 1400, with operations in 10 states and 4 foreign countries ( Ho-Chunk developed jobs both on and off the reservation in areas such as government contracting, corporate services, construction, retail sales and wholesale distribution. And revenues grew from $400,000 in 1995 to $193 million in 2010! ONE PERSON! Morgan's investment into his people is in large part why the Winnebago tribe, not much better off economically than the Omaha peoples not too long ago, is flourishing economically as of today.

Lance Morgan is ONE PERSON! Paul Farmer is ONE PERSON! I set off on this Doctor of Ministry journey to understand more fully what it means for a Christian to participate in meaningful ways "to change the world" (see While James Hunter in his book encourages us to reject utopianism, rather in humility to hold realistic expectations regarding what can truly be accomplished in a fallen world; his final prescription is that Christians are called to a "faithful presence" in the world, not so much to “take over” (as traditional evangelicals have sought to do through the political process), but to serve with intentionality and hopefulness that the world might actually change as a result of our work. Still, Hunter urges patience and a long-term vision for what actually effects true cultural and economic change. In his book, he speaks of the vital importance of transforming institutions, a theme often de-emphasized by evangelicals who focus more on individuals than institutions. Though coming from a different background and tradition, I hear a similar voice in Paul Farmer when he says that the best way to strengthen a country is to seek to strengthen its public sector, rather than have individual NGOs only doing their thing in their little corners of the universe.

Farmer's first piece in seeking to truly strengthen Haiti's public sector is through building a teaching hospital in Mirebalais, which by the way is a stone's throw away from the location of our rural community clinic that we are raising funds to build (

Yes, I am just one person. What can I do truly to change the world? I do agree with the Mother Teresa quote that God calls us to be faithful, not successful. Yet might it be the case that He also delights to use us? perhaps most often in the small ways to gradually enhance the lives of those around us, but maybe also sometimes in big ways that truly change the world? Lance Morgan did something that seemed all but impossible seventeen years ago. Rwanda has achieved a strengthening of its public sector, barely thought possible in 1994, an accomplishment believed by most casual observers to de facto be impossible in Haiti as of today, twenty months following one of the most "acute-on-crisis moments" (Farmer's use of medical terminology to describe the devastation of the January 12th earthquake) the world has ever known. Yet, why would I as a child of God, as one who has a Heavenly Father who hears my prayers, hope for anything less for friends in places like Haiti as well as Walthill? Another evangelical brother might say, but isn't "heaven" and "eternal life" what the people really need? My answer is that all too often my evangelical brothers and sisters have embraced a truncated understanding of the Gospel which is really a message of Good News not merely to get us to heaven, but to address all manner of oppression, injustice and sin, that Christ did come to "make his blessings flow as far as the curse is found" [familiar Christmas tune anyone? See Newbigin critique on this evangelical way of thinking that says “heaven is all that truly matters” (]. 

So the quest continues my friends, the quest to change the world. Most who read this blog (and for this long!) have come from places of privilege and opportunity. Most who read here have a significant level of education- how has that education been given as a gift, as with all good gifts, that we might see ourselves implicated in this world that God made and so loves? Yes, you are only one person, but remember it only took ONE who entered our world, under impoverished circumstances in a smelly stable some 2000 years ago, to change the permanent fortunes of His Beloved people in all times and all places. How might you participate with this One in your historical moment, to change the world?

1 comment:

Jay Simmons said...

Preach it, brother! I'd love to hear your personal takeaways with regards to Haiti and Walthill (and beyond) - what's next then? For your one person?

I think we've taken the glories of the "irrelevance" of our responsibility in the realm of salvation (Jesus saves by grace and we are but grateful recipients) and transferred that paradigm into all of life under the sun, thus birthing and the consumer evangelicalism of the day. Blessed Jesus did save us by grace, but he saved us unto his purpose to make all things new! Thank you for that reminder and encouragement to change the world. I'd love to talk/dream further...