I live in a small townhouse just south of Old Town Alexandria, Virginia – a suburb of Washington, DC. I own a 32-foot sailboat that
rests comfortably in a marina on the Chesapeake; I drive a Lexus Hatchback and my wife, Colleen, drives an Audi Convertible. We have eight children, 18 grandchildren – all of whom will graduate from college and/or receive post graduate degrees. I am part of the 1% crowd that draws the ire of the Occupy crowd, many of them refugees from their parent’s immersion into wealth. Ah, the luxury of protest – a tent on the weekend and a mansion during the week.
I work with youth on development and employment projects in Kenya, Swaziland, Rwanda, Uganda, and Ethiopia. I often travel to remote villages and share milky tea and bread with villagers whose primary objective that day is to find food and water. We work together to build capacity so the search for food and water becomes secondary to sustainable work or agriculture that will secure their families. When I see the faces of these friends and colleagues – I cannot escape the disconnect.
I have moved beyond the white man’s guilt or burden and do not see myself as white, American, or educated. When in the presence of my African colleagues and friends, we come along side each other as individuals and often share meals, laughter, frustration, and work. To be sure, many of them see me as another Mzungu (Swahili for white person) who should have money. Yet, over the past five years – it has become more than that. Recently, the disconnect between what I am and what I have and what they are and what they have has become a source of serious reflection. The disconnect seems to focus on “possessions” – on what I can acquire and what they would like to acquire.
I have learned over the years, that despite our country of origin or our ethnicity, there is a connection that transcends the disconnect of possessions. It is our humanity that binds us all together – all the good and all the bad of humanity. The basic component of the human experience connects us. We seem to find the same things funny, sad, and frustrating. We tease each other; we pray for each other; we yell at each other; we find ways to help each other.
Yet, my disconnect over wealth and possessions continues to trouble me. I remain annoyed and perhaps more annoyed than ever over Facebook postings of my friends who complain that their pet just cost them another small fortune or they just completed another wing to their mini-mansion. The same friends seem to be reticent to donate $10.00 so I can purchase a flashlight (torches) for women exposed to violence in refugee camps. I know, I know, they already give to their Church or to the United Way and they never miss an opportunity to toss their change into a UNICEF container at the supermarket. We Americans are the most benevolent people in the world – well almost anyway.
See what I mean – it is so easy to get sucked into the disconnect if you reduce it to material possessions. As I approach Lent this year, I am looking to purge myself (by God’s Grace) of the sin of anger and disgust over our materialism. The connect must be about the soul – it must be about our common humanity. It must be about sitting under the stars with a Muslim colleague reflecting on the needs of our friends and families as we travel from one village to the next. It is about our laughter; our tears; it is about our families. When I am not with these friends, I miss them terribly. I don’t miss the corrugated tin huts I sometimes sleep in; I don’t miss their roads; I don’t miss the goat stew they want to serve me; I miss them – their smiles, their passion for family, their joy over small changes.
I also want to believe that when they see me – the smiles on their faces are about the prospect of a good laugh, another Copple story, and more stories about my wonderful children and grandchildren. And perhaps, them knowing that together when we flip the switch on a water well or we open a sack of grain – that together we made something happen for our brothers and sisters.
Ah, I will think of them and these experiences this spring when sitting on my sailboat on the Chesapeake and they will think of me as they sit under the stars in the great Rift Valley. For you see, we are connected by a sovereign and merciful God that knows our name regardless of what we possess. For that, we are all connected.
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