On Shoe Boxes, Generosity, Kindness, and Being Helpful

Last year I wrote a post called 13 Things I Want American Christians to Know about Stuff You Give Poor Kids. I got a lot of feedback for that essay. I don’t regret posting it or reposting it.

I do regret that I didn’t provide a specific enough list of other ways to serve. Because I am not anti-service, or against giving! I’m not against gifts or generosity! I’m sorry that some have felt paralyzed or personally hurt.

I still have a lot of big feelings about things like the White Savior Complex and the American Christian emphasis on stuff, on consumerism, when we talk about generosity. No family is perfect. But I don’t want to shoot at the Church, who proves over and over to be kind, generous, and loving. I don’t want to take down people I love and care about and I want to be pushed back, to be challenged.

I have been.

I’ve specifically been asked if I could be more useful, which is ultimately the point – not to point fingers or complain, but to help us all grow and do these things better.

Some of these ideas take more time, relational energy, creativity and courage, others are strictly financial.

So…onward to some ideas for helping without hurting.

Send money to the place you want to bless with gifts. Funnel it through someone you know and trust. Don’t know or trust someone in a location you care about? Email me or leave a comment and I’ll try to connect you. Let the local church hire moms and dads to fill boxes with things they purchase locally. They can keep the income from that work to buy Christmas dinner for their families.

Is there a single mom (or dad) near you? In your church, family, neighborhood? She works so hard to care for her family. Call her up or stop by, even if you barely know her. Ask if you could do her laundry. Tell her what day you go to the grocery store and ask if she could give you her shopping list and cash. Pick up her groceries and just drop them off. Tell her that if her kids have a snow day or get sick, that you will babysit so she doesn’t have to miss a day of work.

Visit someone in the hospital, in a home for the elderly or disabled, in your local prison. Read Christmas stories, bring Christmas cookies, a stocking stuffed with goodies like warm socks, a new card game, gum. Bring your kids along. Ask the chaplain at the hospital or prison if there is someone who was recently released and who might need a care package or a home visit. Transitioning out of the hospital and especially out of prison can be really hard and lonely.

Check out Angel Tree Prison Ministry to get involved personally and practically, locally.

Do you live near kids with two working parents? Offer to take their kids sledding when you go with your own kids. Offer to make Christmas cookies with or for them, maybe their favorite recipe.

Is there someone at your child’s school who needs a Christmas tree or who can’t afford to bring treats to the school holiday party? Ask the teacher and ask if you can provide an anonymous gift so that child can participate with pride.

Write letters to people who live far away. You can do this as a family or with a Sunday School class or small group Bible study. Draw pictures, write silly poems. Remind people who were once part of your community that they are still remembered

Pregnant moms nearby? There might be a center near you that serves young, pregnant, or new moms. Sometimes there are homes for them if they need shelter (link to a great new one below), sometimes there are service centers they access for diapers and clothes, counsel, and medical care. Find one of these and see what they need.

Do you live near an area impacted by fire, flood, hurricane, or other natural disaster? Can you do something in this close-by community that is practical and useful? Maybe a family needs someone to play games with their kids in a shelter for the afternoon so the parents can return to their destroyed home and pick through the debris without traumatizing the kids. Maybe they need warm winter socks or new pots and pans.

Find out who in your town works with refugees, newly arrived immigrants, families with children who have special needs, someone recently diagnosed with a debilitating illness, a nursing home for the elderly…it takes some pre-planning, some initiative, and a lot of courage, but you never know where a willing heart might take you.

Specific local and international opportunities:

Support nurses in Kurdistan. This is run by a dear friend, Marilyn Gardner. Give the gift of life. Marilyn needs $10,000 more to reach her goal. It costs $9.00/per shoe box just for the box and shipping. Average $5-6 more/box for the items inside. That means she needs the equivalent of 667 boxes. Some groups do that in a night. For toys. I realize my frustration is evident, but here is a chance to invest in lives. “Nurses are foundational to health care systems. You can have the best doctors in the world, but without nurses both public health programs and hospital care suffer. Building a strong and accountable group of nurses a world away will have lasting impact.”

Elevate Hope House is run by a childhood friend and is a brand new project. Melinda has big dreams and a huge heart. “Elevate is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization established to empower young, single moms and their children in crisis, by providing a safe home and an empowering support system, while each mom learns self-sufficiency and renews, restores, and regains her self-worth through the love of Christ.”

Rowing Dangerously is fellow runner of the Somaliland Marathon, Jordan Wylie. He ‘ran dangerously’ through Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan to raise money to help children in need. This year he is rowing across the waters near Djibouti, to raise money for education in the refugee camps of Djibouti, clearly issues near and dear to my own heart.

International School of Djibouti, that’s us!

Resource Exchange International, that’s us, too!

Hidden Treasures Thrift Store. In St. Anthony, Minnesota: “We are a non-profit Christian workplace that partners with a large community of donors, shoppers, and volunteers to provide a place for meaningful employment, Christ-centered life development, and a loving community for those of us who have backgrounds that include addiction or a criminal record.”

The Angel Foundation is a Minnesota-based organization that provides practical, financial, and emotional support for people with cancer and their families. One of their activities is offering a camp for kids whose parents have or had cancer.

And here are two ideas I took from magazine articles I read recently but don’t personally know anything about:

Reader to reader, helping teachers supply their classrooms with books (note that our school in Djibouti is also always building our library, the largest accessible to all English-language library in the country and it fits on five shelves!)

Power My Learning, accepts used computers, laptops, and other technology for low-income families and students.


The Bookshelf: 6 Important Books about Aid and Development

6 important development books

We want to do some good here and we want to do as little harm as possible. Along with learning from locals, asking what people need and what people think will help, learning from experience, and a lot of prayer, I turn to books for help. Here are some that have been useful, interesting, and challenging.

If you are involved in the world of aid and development work, whether internationally or locally, you need to read When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. I think I am currently on my third reading of this, with many returns in between complete reads to remind myself of the concepts in it. What is poverty? What do poor people have to say about poverty? What are the four sectors involved in poverty? This book provides excellent fodder for communication and tools for rethinking our engagement with ‘the poor,’ which includes people just like me. Even if you aren’t involved in development work, I can’t recommend this book highly enough for the way it will challenge your worldview. It is a faith-based book and relies on Biblical ideas alongside non-faith based research and experiences.


After you read When Helping Hurts, you need to read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn (I wrote more about it here, though this post is mostly about the film and not the book). Of course my favorite chapter was the one about the Edna Aden Hospital in Somaliland, where we hunkered down for a week in 2003 in the middle of our evacuation experience. But the entire book is well worth reading because we need to know what is happening among girls and women, the vulnerable and the exploited, in order to know how to best invest in whole communities.



The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World by Jaqueline Novogratz. Imagine you donated a sweater. You put it in a box destined for who-knows-where and you go about your life. That life leads you to Rwanda as an adult and you are walking down the street when suddenly, right in front of you, is someone wearing that sweater. Not just a sweater like it, not a replica, but that specific sweater that once kept you warm or itchy. That is what happened to Novogratz and while it sounds far-fetched, I believe her. I have seen kids here wearing my kids’ hand-me-downs. Of course we live here and this is a small town, but still…This book is about helping women develop small businesses and is a mix of memoir and development ideas.


The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It by Paul Collier






The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time by Jeffrey Sachs

I don’t agree with all of Sachs’ ideas and, interestingly enough, he and the author of the next book, William Easterly, also disagree. There are no easy or one-size fits all solutions. I was captivated by this book until the end when he writes about Millenial Villages and the conversation leaped far over my head and my ability to engage or be involved. But Sachs is still an excellent author to read for learning about and thinking about development.



The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good by William Easterly





What I’m Reading This Week

Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War by Megan K. Stack I listened to this while running over the past week. Her writing is poetic, which struck me as being at odds with the gory, horrible situations she was writing about. Sometimes it felt a bit over the top but I also appreciated her effort to find beauty, life, and hope in devastation.





Home Leave: A Novel by Brittani Sonnenberg. This is another one I’m listening to while running, recommended to me by Marilyn Gardner. Sisters, family life focused on international moves…sounds like something I can easily connect with. I just started this one and am eager to wake up tomorrow morning, go for my run, and hit ‘play.’ That’s the best motivator for getting out the door – a good story waiting for me.




The Turtle of Oman: A Novel, by Naomi Shihab Nye, a book for ages 9-12 or so. We are reading this one out loud together and so far I am really enjoying it. It reads smoothly and is about places familiar in our region of the world. Oman, Dubai, people speaking Arabic. Really a fun world to enter through fiction for this age. I’d like to read more like this.





It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War, by Lynnsey Addario just started it, can’t say much yet but I’m fascinated by the premise, basically what the tagline says: a photographer’s life of love and war.



What are you reading this week?

Earning the Right to Help Without Hurting

still(if you are just joining today please read the first two posts in this series:

When Rich Westerners Don’t Know They Are Being Rich Westerners

Good Intention, Good Practice)

Here is a story of progress and wrestling, of trying to help without hurting, a piece of my on-going journey.

“If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.” Teju Cole, The White Savior Industrial Complex

I once spent the morning seated on a thin foam mattress on the dirt ground in Amina’s* house. Six structures, each made from sticks, old clothes, flattened and rusty powdered milk cans, stood in a semi-circle inside a woven thorn branch fence.

(*her real name. This forces me to write with integrity. Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others, “It is significant that the powerless are not named in the captions…to grant only the famous their names demotes the rest to representative instances of their occupations, their ethnicities, their plights.”)

From where I sat I could see through loops in barbed wire and thorns to the mountains on the Ethiopia-Djibouti border, burnt orange and brown and close. I sat in the middle of two running coaches. One softly hummed a gentle song about beauty and nature. The other coach and I teased two little boys about their plate of rice and why they didn’t go to school.

Amina’s mother came and kissed our hands and cheeks. She gave us traditional beaded jewelry: a headband, two strings of black and white beads tied around my ankles, and a stick with fluorescent green and yellow feathers. We were laughing and talking and I wanted to cry.

I wanted to cry because it was beautiful and wrenching and this woman was humming about beauty in this desolate, empty place and this woman was giving to us and it felt so good and right and even spiritual to be there in that spot, in that moment.

Later, this bothered me. Because it was totally cliché. Totally, “I went to Africa and the poor woman was happily giving to me out of her poverty and now we’re sisters and I’ve seen God and my life is changed and this is real faith.” This was the quintessential ‘when the local gives back’ moment that sometimes makes me cringe in narratives by rich westerners who have spent time in the developing world.

There is the ‘they’re poor but they’re happy’ line. They do have nice smiles and good senses of humor, but that’s entirely different.” Tracy Kidder, quoting Paul Farmer in Mountains Beyond Mountains

But as I reflected (both on my experience and on why these narratives bother me) I recognized that this wasn’t what I was thinking and this wasn’t a simplistic local woman smiling and being more generous than she could afford because a white woman stepped through her door. This was not simple and wasn’t reducible to basic emotions or broad sweeps of declaring sisterhood.

This was a relationship that has been built over trial and time and investment. There was language comprehension, we were communicating. There was history. I was able to enter into the situation and respond to it and interact. I was not overwhelmed or surprised by the poverty, which was extreme, or the circumstances. I was pleased to see where Amina keeps her running shoes.

I didn’t think the kids were cute, with big eyes, orange hair from malnourishment, and flies on their faces. I thought they were Amina’s brothers and it was nice to meet them. I didn’t think her father was a poor suffering old man, I wondered when he would be able to get medicine for his aching hip. I knew that the anklets were an Issa custom (a Somali clan) and that the bright stick was for the dashboard in the car. In other words, my response stemmed not from culture shock but from a relationship and a cultural knowledge. One that will last longer than one morning.

I was thinking about her needs, though. This family has a lot of needs. But I wasn’t thinking, ‘these poor people are suffering.’ I was thinking, how can we help this family secure stability for the long-term, for example by keeping Amina in school. Accomplished not by economic incentives or purchasing supplies but by a simple rule of the running club I had helped launch in 2008. Any members of the team, which Amina desperately wanted to be part of, must remain in school. The family made it happen because they care about Amina.

I believe it is important to tell stories like Amina’s but in a way that is less about me and more about Amina. In a way that doesn’t stem from culture shock or exoticizing or othering. In a way that requires me to step back and not be the hero, not be the person the reader is left thinking of.

In the same way I believe it is important to help people like Amina. Our involvement has ranged from rice to vitamins to running clothes, all associated with being a member of the team. But we are learning to do this in a way that is less about me, more about her. Not so I become a hero but so she becomes a partner. Not with strictly my ideas but with her creativity and initiative.

I could take photos of Amina’s house that would shock most readers. I could tell stories about her experience that would make you cry. I could do this, like I thought about with the boy with the burned hand a few years ago, and ask you to help me help Amina because ‘look how terrible her life is.’ I could ply your guilty conscience and make you feel like a savior. I could play savior myself, dump boxes of food at Amina’s house and never learn about her talent on the track.

Or, I could tell stories about Amina’s improved time in the 400-meters. About her beautiful form as she leaps over hurdles that I’m too scared to step over. About her sister who wants to be a runner too, but whom Amina hopes just stays in school. It is obvious that Amina has needs, a minute inside her story reveals this, but what I choose to emphasize in sharing that story determines the level of dignity, authenticity, and ownership she maintains.

I could bring Amina boxes of food because she is a member of a team and she has earned it with practice and dedication, just like runners on a team in an American high school are given awards and team prizes. Now I am getting to know her and her unique talents and challenges. Now she feels proud of her contribution to the family and the strength in her legs. Now you can watch a girl grow into a community leader, a dedicated student, and a runner who could crush you in a race. A unique individual, representative of herself.

I’m not saying I know how to do development work perfectly. I most definitely make mistakes and need to regularly check my attitude and actions. I’m saying that I am learning how to be. How to sit, to be still, to build relationships. I am learning to earn the right to be heard, to earn the right to offer a hand, to earn the right to make a statement, to earn the right to write a blog post or an essay or a book, to earn the right to try and help.

I know not all bloggers, writers, thinkers, travelers, have the opportunity to develop language skills or the time to invest in long-term relationships. I don’t expect them to, we are each called to a different style of living and working. But, if they plan on writing about a cross-cultural experience, if they plan on getting involved in a local community, I believe they have the responsibility to at least do research, to be clear about their lack of cultural competency, and to ask questions and be careful of assumptions. To read how some people are trying to do this, check out D.L. Mayfield’s series War Photographers.

They could read books before going to a place, both by authors from that place and from authors who know the place well. They can become familiar with food, clothing, geography, history, music, film so that when they arrive they are ready to delve deeper. They can educate themselves about possible roles their own country (especially relevant for Americans) have played in this place. If a person is willing to invest significant amounts of money and time to spend in the developing world, they need to also be willing to invest intellectually and in preparation.

Let us, rich westerners and poor westerners, rich easterners and poor easterners, serve and love with passion and abandon and let us earn the right to help without hurting.

*image credit Travis Miller via Flickr

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