A group of villagers were working in the fields by a river. Suddenly someone noticed a baby floating downstream. A woman rushed out and rescued the baby, brought it to shore and cared for it. During the next several days, more babies were found floating downstream, and the villagers rescued them as well. But before long there was a steady stream of babies floating downstream. Soon the whole village was involved in the many tasks of rescue work. Before long, however, the village became exhausted with all this rescue work. Some villagers suggested they go upstream to discover how all these babies were getting into the river in the first place. “Don’t you see,” cried some, “if we find out how they’re getting in the river, we can stop the problem and no babies will drown?” “But it’s too risky,” said the village elders. “It might fail. It’s not for us to change the system. And besides, how would we occupy ourselves if we no longer had this to do?”
This story, known as “The Parable of the River”, is often told in progressive circles. It’s told for the purpose of understanding the distinctions between charity and justice. It’s told to get the audience to take serious the need for addressing the root causes to injustice, but it is often done so by demeaning works of charity. I get it. Charity is sometimes frustrating. I know of many faith communities and nonprofits that take pride in feeding the homeless, but not once have they ever talked about why hunger and homelessness is an issue in their communities. Not once have they strategized on how to transform those needs into satisfaction. For too long people have done charity work to appease themselves, to do good, to check off a box that that meets a quota for being engaged with the community . I’m frustrated too, but I’d like to nuance our understanding of charity in a way that will get us to see the value in it through something I’ve experienced.
About 4 months ago, a woman named Priscilla attended my local church. I was immediately drawn to her because there were two things we instantaneously had in common. We were both women and were the only two women of color in the congregation. After church, I went to her to speak, but she spoke almost no English. I did manage to learn that she was from Togo and I since I was from Liberia, we had the roots of West Africa in common. After trying to find someone who could speak French, but to no avail, I called Theresa, a French speaking woman from the Ivory Coast who is part of the African women’s group I run at work. Theresa was able to give the information I wanted passed on to Priscilla. I wanted her to know I worked at a place where she could take English classes for little to no cost. I took her number and we soon began a friendship. I walked her home after church. That evening; I wondered how she came to this place and why she was alone especially since the elderly don’t live by themselves in Africa. It is customary for the children and family members to care for them especially since they cared for us in our youth. Over the course of the next weeks, I got to learn her narrative by talking to her son on the phone. He told me his mom is 70 years old. He is in the military, and because he could be deployed any day, he wants her to live independently. They live apart only because he applied for section 8 housing in multiple places and the Tacoma Housing Authority responded first. He told me she’s been in the country for many years and has been with him and other relatives, but has had anxiety venturing off on her own because many of the social service programs she attempted to be a part of were not culturally competent. Nevertheless, he does visit her on a regular basis. Hearing the back story put many things into perspective.
From then on getting Priscilla to the resources she needed was not easy, but I had direction. Working at the site where one of the top ESL programs in the state is run, I knew she’d be tended to in a way that was sensitive to her needs and ease her of her anxiety. Priscilla lives in a location where buses are not very accessible for someone her age and the routes are not direct. I arranged for a church member to pick her up and take her to class while I made calls and filled out paperwork to get the city’s Para transit to pick her up from home and take her to school. All of the hard work is now paying off for Priscilla. I watch her in class every so often and she is filled with great joy. She is focused. She has met friends from all over the world who share similar stories. She has attended my African women’s group and she is thriving in class. In this photo, she is learning how to use the computer for the first time in her life.
Charity at its best asks questions, builds relationships and makes advocates stay committed to the long haul work of justice. When we begin the paradigm shift of not seeing our work as mutually exclusive but as compliments to one another, the real end goal of leading God’s people into the promise of abundant life will be realized over and over again because of committed people on the side of charity and justice.