A few years ago (2005) I wrote this piece for an online magazine, and was reminded of it today:
THE EXPERIMENT – by Tom Smith
I love experiments. A few years ago I wore my Jabez T-shirt in Colorado Springs. It said, “I prayed the prayer of Jabez for thirty days and the only thing I got was this lousy shirt.” The reactions I got were truly amazing. Some people were furious while others thanked me.
A few weeks ago I embarked on another one of my ventures. The laboratory I chose was the local Christian bookstores in Johannesburg, South Africa. The experiment was really simple; I would browse the store in search of books on helping the poor and fighting AIDS. After I saw a million, `Here’s how to use Jesus to make you more successful’ titles, I would then ask the sales clerk or manager if they stock books about helping the hurting and helpless.
The first store’s clerk looked confused when I asked the question, and the manager intervened and said, “If you find a book on the subject you should immediately buy it.”
Two days later I took my science to a bookstore in another mall. I walked in with one of my seventeen year old friends, who happened to be someone who was on the receiving end of apartheid. I asked the clerk if they had books on poverty or AIDS. Nothing could have prepared me for the answer she gave me. “No sir, this is a religious bookstore. I think you should try the secular bookstore around the corner.”
In utter shock I asked her if she didn’t think that helping the poor or sick had anything to do with religion. I only got a blank stare. Now it’s easy to harp on this poor girl but to tell you the truth, if you asked me the same question a few years ago, I probably would have had the same confused look, and I’m a pastor! I often wonder why I never made the link between my relationship with Christ and my responsibility towards people who suffer and are poor.
In December of 2003 a few of us planted a community in South Africa called Kleipot Gemeente (Afrikaans for Clay Pot Community). For almost two years now we’ve been reading through the gospels. The pattern emerging from Jesus’ rhythms is one of an unmistakable identification with the poor, the sick and the marginalized. In the light of our Leader’s actions we had to ask ourselves some difficult questions. Perhaps the most revealing question, “Do our lives in community reflect the same concern Jesus showed for the poor and sick?” The answer for us was a resounding “NO.” We started praying; asking God to open the eyes of our hearts.
We live in a world with immense pain and poverty, a fact that’s portrayed by knee-numbing and guilt-inducing statistics. As followers of Jesus we have to remember that behind every statistic there’s a person who’s loved by God, someone created in the image of our Lord. Our prayer was that God would reveal to us the faces and stories of people who are only represented on paper with a numerical value.
David was the statistic that became flesh for me; he’s a pastor who’s ministering in an extremely poor village. David became one of my good friends. We’ve spent hours trading stories, eating together and laughing. I’ve learned a lot from my friendship with David. Hanging with David and his wife teaches me a lot about the absolute abundance I live in. Instead of always increasing our standard of living, their lives challenge us to give away the excess. Knowing them has been life changing. When David and Shandu eat in our house I’m always introduced to those key principles of abundance, needs and equality Paul refers to in chapter 8 of his second letter to the Corinthians.
Most of us have friendships with people who are just like us: usually the same color, the same socio-economical class and with similar interests. We also have this propensity to think of ourselves as `not that rich’. I have a friend who works in Mozambique—a few months ago I referred to myself as a middleclass South African, and he told me that I’m not middleclass, but rich. Compared to the rest of South Africa and our brothers and sisters throughout the world, I am stinking rich.
The girl in the bookstore is at the start of her journey—I don’t want to judge her—but I think we all need to ask ourselves some tough questions about our lifestyles. Have we made the connection that Jesus’ message calls us to relate to those that the world counts out?
Matthew 25:41-43 has always haunted me. Jesus says to a group of people to depart from Him because, “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”
When I told one of my friends about my experiment in the bookstore he responded that there was a great book on the topic of poverty and helping people with AIDS in those bookstores.
It’s the Bible.
I think we need to ask God to open our eyes towards those who are less fortunate. When God shows us someone in need, we need to respond, not as a superior, but as a humble servant in the name of Christ. It’s a connection we simply have to make.