Monday, February 28, 2011

Footwashing and Not Playing White Santa

I washed our gate guard's foot today.

Not with a basin of water and a towel, but with a sterile wipe and latex gloves. Big Stan hurt his foot. His boot rubbed his foot raw just below his big toe. It's a big toe. Big Stan is big- 6'2'' ish and an easy 225 lbs. Big for a Haitian.

I asked Stan if he had socks. He shook his head and said, "m' pa gen." I don't have them.

It is then I noticed his pants had busted at the seam and someone sewed them back. Days ago I had commented to Katie that his boots had looked completely worn through in some places.

After I bandaged his foot up I stormed into my house. Christ's words about being cursed for not taking care of the least of these assaulted me. I felt like a huge jackass. I had just read this blog by John the Baptist's stunt double. I knew I had to help. I wanted to help in the most practical way...

 This is where you would expect to read about how I made a commitment to sock every Haitian man, woman, and child. I would tell you that I personally socked 200 people and am asking for a commitment to help sock thousands more. But, that didn't happen.

I went across to the street to talk to my expert on all things Haitian, Miquette. I asked her about Big Stan, knowing she had given him some antibiotics for his foot. I wanted to know where one could buy socks in Haiti. She asked why. When I recounted my conversation with Stan, Miquette's athletic frame, which had previously been very still, got very animated and passionate.

"Socks! Oh, he knows here to get them! They are so cheap! Socks are everywhere!"

I asked her why Big Stan did not have any, suddenly seeing my plan of dominating the charity sock market and earning a MacArthur Genius Grant unraveling. (Are the puns too bad? Sock market?)

Miquette can read white peoples' minds. She knows when a blan is scheming and she knows when a blan is being played. She straightened up and wagged her finger at me (unaware that her biceps were flexing in a very intimidating way too). "You will not buy him socks, Ben. Give him food or anything else, but I cannot let you give him socks. He has been irresponsible." Miquette hypothesized that Big Stan has not prioritized well with his paycheck.

I then began to totally downplay even the mere prospect of buying socks, despite the fact that I had already decided on my fundraising (sockraising?) slogan, "Put a sock in poverty!" for my charity sock drive that every PTA in the greater Dallas area was sure to jump on board with. I agreed and sulked home. No milk and cookies for this White Santa.

There are a lot of reasons to give in to a savior complex and play White Santa (the charitable white person who disperses goods and services like a jolly 'ole man on Christmas Eve night without understanding unintended, and possibly damaging, consequences). The chief reason is a misunderstanding of the purpose of Christian charity, lovingkindness, and mission work (second is probably some sort of white guilt). Though they often are rooted in the right motives, White Santa actions can belittle the recipients' value as a human and contribute to dependency on hand-outs, creating the international aid equivalent of a welfare state that is so prevalent in developing countries.

To be sure, there are times when it is necessary to provide people with the basics of life, like right after a natural disaster. But setting up systems of handing out goods without thinking about why it is missing in the first place is dangerous. It treats symptoms (not root causes), can create inappropriate incentive structures, and does not teach responsibility. Imparting responsibility is sometimes more important than giving immediate happiness (as any teacher or parent can attest). God does not give us everything we ask for or meet every little whim. We suffer the consequences of our poor decisions.

Katie and our neighbors do many things for our guards. We feed them home-cooked meals and bring them burgers when we go out. We do not pay them directly (they are contracted through the school), but we, along with our neighbors, paid them a "13th month" Christmas bonus.

Big Stan is around my age. He has fixed up the guard hut nicely. He used to bring a tv with him to work. He recently outfitted the guardhouse with a mini-fridge. He street clothes are Haitian-trendy. But he has not made sure that he has the basics. None of the other guards' uniforms are tattered or their shoes worn bare (Ceyab has the coolest camo-print boots). I learned that it is much more loving to talk with Stan about being responsible than it is to fix all his problems for him.

I guess I will have to get that Genius Grant another way...


  1. :)

    Perhaps my favorite entry of yours (Ben's) yet!

  2. That does not say much;) Thanks for reading and for commenting!

  3. Do you why I think this was a great post? It's because it made me think about my own tendencies to rescue someone without giving it any thought. It's times like this when I wish I weren't a white American, when I wish my skin was a little darker and I spoke another language so that I could deny my own inclination to play "white Santa".

    Young man, you are gaining much wisdom during your time in Haiti. Wisdom and compassion go very well together. Continue to refine both qualities in your life.

    Keep up the good work!

  4. Very thought provoking post. I am a PTA mom and as I read the beginning of your post, I was already thinking of ways to "help". I think sometimes I like helping because of the way it makes me feel. It should be more about impacting others.

  5. Great post, Ben. I can totally picture Miquette's speech. :-)

  6. Wow, I agree with "Another Texan." Probably one of my favorite posts. In fact, probably 3 weeks ago, my husband and I delivered a footlong Subway sandwhich to a homeless man around 5:30. My husband says, "we thought you might like some dinner." He says, I've already eaten. We say, ok, well it's just a subway sandwhich and will keep real easy and you can eat it tomorrow for lunch. He responds, "I don't really like Subway." What? How can someone refuse a turkey sandwhich? There's not a whole lot to dislike there. Dependence on handouts or what? I mean, we didn't really know what else to say- probably should have gone earlier when we could have sat and chatted with him. Anyhow, I really like this and it's a great reminder to equip others when equipping is needed, and giving when giving is needed. Thanks! :)



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