Help the Children: Empower or Save?

 13 Some people brought children to Jesus so that he would place his hands on them and pray. But the disciples scolded them. 14 “Allow the children to come to me,” Jesus said. “Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children.” 15 Then he blessed the children and went away from there. (Matthew 19.13-15)

Recently, there has been a lot of criticism regarding the Invisible Children’s campaign to make Joseph Kony famous in order to shed light on his criminal acts and hopefully lead to arrest. To be honest, I haven’t really followed the campaign, but a recent blog post by Dianna E. Anderson critiquing not only Invisible Children but other organizations who similarly address aid to other countries got me thinking about how we need to think critically about what is helpful and what is harmful. Using TOMS shoes as an example, an organization that does shoe drops to countries that need shoes, Anderson admits that although it may be a temporary fix at least they are doing something and it is paved with good intention. She further clarifies that it used to be the way she thought until she realized that good intentions could actually be more actively harmful.

But when that something becomes actively harmful, good intentions no longer suffice. TOMS shoes is one of those things – I’ve realized – that tend more toward “actively harmful” than sustainably good, despite all solid intentions. The model upon which TOMS functions is, itself, deeply flawed. Doing shoe drops in countries that need the shoes as aid is a temporary fix. And I don’t doubt it feels AWESOME to see a smiling kid put on their first pair of shoes.

But it would be better if that kid was able to walk down the street and buy shoes from a local business. It would be infinitely better if that kid had a place to get his or her next pair of shoes when they grow out of them. And it would be better if the local shoemaker could stay in business by selling shoes to the locals rather than their market being flooded with free, cheaply made, shoes from America.

This got me thinking about how WE as society, organizations, and companies, go about “saving” the children, saving the world. Especially during Christmas time, I am usually bombarded with some type of “save the children” campaign on TV that cascades a myriad of pictures with starving children across the screen to some depressing music like that Sarah McLachlan commercial to stop animal cruelty. Last Christmas, this photo was plastered all over Facebook as if using photos of starving children is somehow either supposed to curb my spending habit or put life into perspective for me.

For me, the problem with photos like this is that it completely objectifies the children in this photo. I’m not sure how this photo helps them. Some of the critique with organizations like TOMs and Invisible Children has been that solutions stem from this “white savior complex,” “white” people’s perception about how to help the other. The danger is when the act of helping further objectifies the other rather than truly helping them.

Wouldn’t it be more helpful if we assisted in empowering the other to help themselves? Who knows how to better help themselves than those who need help. In May of 2011, I attended the World Council of Churches’ International Ecumenical Peace Convocation, where they had a showing of the documentary, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” about Liberian women, Liberian mothers, who helped end the civil war between rebels and loyal supporters of Dictator Charles Taylor. These women took it upon themselves to use their own bodies to barricade the powers at be in a building until they agreed on a peace treaty. These mothers took it upon themselves to overturn the powers in their own country so that their children and women would be safe. The documentary brings to light to all of us the inspirational and courageous act of these women and the message that truly people can change the world. Leymah Gbowee, the organizer of these groups of women, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

I am truly inspired by these women who especially in their country had the least power and yet managed to take down the powerful. Children too are often seen as the least powerful, the least of these. But even Jesus reminds us that heaven belongs to the least of these. Who better to show us what heaven should be like than those who heaven belongs to. Children are incredible truth tellers. As much as children should be advocated for, protected, and cherished, they should also be listened to, learned from, and followed.

A seminary friend of mine, Jed Koball, is a Presbyterian Mission Worker in Peru. And he has been working with Cambialo, which is an organization that stands for “Building a Better Environment in La Oroya.”  La Oroya, Peru is one of the most contaminated cities in the world. Almost all the children have severe levels of lead in their bodies. Cambialo is a group of kids from La Oroya who all have lead poisoning and they bring awareness of the issue by building friendships and relationships with kids from around the world to help bring change so that this doesn’t happen anywhere else. How cool is that? Kids empowered to help themselves. Kids bringing awareness to other kids. Kids changing the world.

Could you imagine what a better place this world would be if we raised and empowered our children to engage and participate in their community and world? Could you imagine how much we as adults would learn if we listened and took the lead from them on how to change the world? Maybe this world we live in would be a little more like heaven.

I end this blog with this video – a video of the kids from Cambialo sharing about what is going on in their city.

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