I rode into work this morning with my friend Charith, and we talked about a mutual friend working in China. Our friend observed that an uncommon number of Chinese seem to be wearing glasses. Charith asked, “Why do you think so many people have bad eyes?”
Community development professionals observe and ask these questions all the time. As a former community development professional, I know that you notice something and start asking why.
I once drove from San Antonio to the Mexican border with friends. As we approached the severely impoverished colonias that dot the border on the Texas side, I commented out loud, “My goodness, these folks are still getting by with outhouses.”
Talk about a conversation stopper. It was cricket-chirping time in the car. But that’s the way I roll, after being part of community assessment and evaluation teams.
We have to be careful not to fill in the blanks without doing some digging, though, because our solutions often reveal more about who we are, than what’s really going on in the community.
When I was working with FH in Bolivia, I hosted a short-term team that included an optometrist, whom I’ll call Jim. We’d had a great week fitting kids with glasses; it changed lives when kids who thought they were too stupid to learn. These kids soon realized they just couldn’t see well enough to do their school work. We’d fit a pair of glasses, and there would be laughter, hugs, and tears of joy.
At the end of the trip, Jim and I were among a group running some errands in downtown La Paz, one of Bolivia’s two capital cities. We were waiting to meet up with some team members on a busy city street. Jim and I mounted a set of cement stairs leading up to the door of stately older building, so I could see over the crowd and find our friends.
From this vista, we could see people coming and going, moving about their business. Jim said, “Wow, it seems like there are an awful lot of blind people in this city. I wonder what’s causing it? Do you think it’s a nutritional issue? Is there some reason a higher percentage of this city is born blind?”
At the same time, I was reading a sign on the side of the building. I was happy that Jim was observing his surroundings and thinking about the needs. But he wasn’t able to read the sign in Spanish, so I translated for him.
“Jim,” I said with a smile, “I think what may be going on here is that we are standing on the front steps of the National Institute for the Blind.”
I’m not patting myself on the back here, because I’ve arrived at plenty of similar conclusions, out of ignorance. And sometimes, I made the missteps out of pride. I thought I had the smarts to figure out the problem and the solution. If you’re a storyteller, like me, the solution is to publish as many stories and photos of the problem, so people might take an interest in helping. If your only tool is a hammer, you want to treat every problem like it’s a nail.
And sometimes, there isn’t even a problem to solve. One thing that popped into my head, as Charith and I talked about glasses in China, was that perhaps people wore them as a fashion statement. Maybe most of the people wearing specs have 20-20 vision, and glasses are just “in” right now. I have no clue.
That said, sometimes the process of noticing a need is God’s way of saying, “I want you to notice this. I want your heart to be broken. I want you respond in the way I’ve uniquely made you to respond.”
It’s good to figure out what tools you have, and what problems they could solve. That’s a great first step. Figuring out what our response should be — looking for the right nail — always needs to include God in the equation, as well as asking people wiser than you, what they think. I forget that. A lot.
Where have you felt God calling you to respond? What’s your hammer, and what’s your nail?