Tuesday, October 28, 2008

It's All Relative

[what's brewing: tastes rich to me!]

In hindsight I can see that I probably would have accomplished much more in the technical aspects of language learning if I had gone with a professional language tutor rather than an acquaintance who had been recommended by several other missionaries for her work as language tutor. Our social connections have become the grounds for getting severely off track during the majority of my lessons. While I get frustrated at times that we aren’t progressing through the book as quickly as I’d hoped, I have to admit that our tangential discussions have proved to be a good language learning tool, as well as a great forum for understanding the culture here and who I am in relation to it.

We have discussed many safe and simple topics, as well as several controversial and more significant topics like domestic abuse, sexuality, and the handling of sin within leadership in the church. I occasionally find myself a bit shocked by what she’s telling me while simultaneously incapable of properly expressing my point of view. I am stretched to my language-ability limits by these conversations, but even so, I love the way they challenge my thinking.

Recently she asked me a question that has stuck with me and helped to formulate my own thinking on the issue.

“Is it true that compared to other people in the United States, missionaries don’t get paid very well? A missionary once told me that she feels like people think she’s made of gold but in reality she has to be careful with her spending just like we all do. Do you think she was a poor missionary, or is it true that missionaries don’t get paid very well?”

I hesitated, wanting to respond carefully. My mind was already filled with the complexities of discussing finances in a way that wouldn’t belittle the experience of the people we work with, nor dismiss the “luxuries” of our lifestyle as insignificant reflections of our financial status. When the ownership of standard items in the US such as a car, laptop, digital camera, or television and DVD player would indicate certain wealth in this area, how could I explain that although we own not just one, but all of those items, we are not rich?

The truth is that we are very rich in relation to the poverty around us, but we’re not rich in relation to the cultural standards of the United States.

In that moment I was haunted by my own negative remarks just this week about the stress of living on a support-based budget. I had complained about the cost of postage to send a batch of personal notes off to our supporters, and then about the extra expenses we had this month for the anniversary celebration of the church. Our personal financial stressors are real, but they pale against the background of poverty and the socioeconomic limitations that plague this community.

I too have felt the frustration of being perceived as an endless money source, or being “made of gold”, but I have never voiced my frustration because relatively speaking, that perception is understandable. I could not bring myself to dismiss the comforts of our life as standard possessions for many Americans when many people around us struggle to meet their daily needs. At the same time, I want others to know that we’re not as “rich” as we may appear to be, perhaps to appease the guilt I feel when considering my own material blessings in relation to the culture around me.

I continually struggle with issues such as this. I’m curious about you, dear readers.

Do you ever wrestle with the disparity between your own resources and those of the people you are working with? Do you feel guilty for the comforts of internet access, digital cameras, vehicles, etc.? Or do you choose to live without them to align yourself with the people you work with? Last week one of you used the term “my adopted nation” in your comment, and that phrase has stuck with me. How do you integrate the norms of your “home nation” with the realities of your “adopted nation”?


The Stover Family said...

It is funny to hear about your experience with your language teacher, because it sounds so familiar. We decided to go with private tutors instead of a language school because we thought the pros out weighed the cons. It is so true though that it is so much easier to go off topic in a private setting then in the class room. I agree with you that we have learned so much more about the culture around us through having all the rabbit trail conversations. So many times I just want to say lets get on with the lesson, but then I realize that even through the rabbit trails I am learning. I am learning stuff that I might not be able to learn in a text book.

Kara said...

We first lived in Siberia right after the Russian ruble was devalued. We could afford anything we saw. The low cost of living made it easy to raise support and still save money. But gradually, even in Siberia, the standard of living has increased--at least for the super wealthy. So we now there are cafes and activities we can't afford. It was a hard transition, that felt almost unfair! Yet we are still relatively well off compared to most people. And although we know that we're not 'made of money,' we do have a level of financial security--even in this time of financial insecurity--that our neighbors cannot imagine. And our lifestyle of travel and conferences in other countries give the impression we have a lot of extra money! We forget how hard it is for most people to save for travel.

When we are in the States, I am a little shocked at our fellow missionaries pinching-pennies mindset. We’re there for furlough and vacation, to stock up on inexpensive clothes and medicines. We spend money like crazy to buy and ship the things we need.

I think one of the hardest things is the identity question. In the States, we fall in the lower-middle income categories--which feels good sometimes and awful sometimes. But in our adopted country, we are upper-middle class. In me, it exposes how much I place my self worth in my class identity.

I also struggle with the Sermon on the Mount teachings. What it would really look like to give to everyone who asks? You know that what you have won't go far. And we’ve personally seen cases where extreme generosity led to major problems among the recipients. Wealth and power issues are really complicated! But is God asking for us to give for our own sakes--to trust in Him to the extreme? Is this the hardest commandment for Americans to follow? It seems we just rationalize away! I’d love to hear other’s thoughts on these questions.

Missionaries in La Ceiba, Honduras said...

Good, insightful question! It is something we often struggle with as well. One of the differences, I think, is that we (in our case) are 100% reliant upon supporters in the states. This isn't something we did ourselves - it's something that God has provided for us. So it helps me in many respects feel humbled by what we do have. Our ministry area is different from where we live. Our ministry area is troubled by crime, severe poverty, gang activity, lack of many basic sanitary needs and water. So, we have chosen not to live in the area for health and safety reasons. However, we spend much of our time there each day, but return home each night. I realize that this puts us a bit "outside" of the community, but we love the community we work in, and they have grown to love us - regardless of our economic level, regardless of what we "have and don't have" - simply by who we are and (hopefully) the love we bring to the community. Just some thoughts to chew over.

The Stover Family said...

This is a tough topic for sure. I think that living like the people you work with has its own challenges in each country. For our first term, while learning the language and culture we decided to live in an apartment in an old communist block. It definitely hasn't been the most exciting experience for me, but I think that it has opened my eyes to see how most of the people in this country live. It has helped me to better understand their culture. Even though I feel like I am living like the people cause I am in an old 80 sq meter apartment, I technically am not cause there are only five of us in our apartment. Our neighbors down stairs live in the exact size apartment and there are 12 people living in the same amount of space. Most of our neighbors live with their extended family. There are two and three families in each apartment. Therefore we are living in tons of space. I think that no matter where you live or how you live the people around you will always think of you as the wealthy foreigners. However, I think they appreciate when you make an effort to try to understand their way of life, whether it be the way they live or what they eat. I think they appreciate it when they see you shopping in the sames stores as them and playing in the same parks as them. Any thing you can do to better understand their way of life is a huge plus. I totally understand though that it is easier in some countries to live like those around you then others. I enjoy hearing other peoples ideas on this topic. Thanks for bring it up.

Karis said...

We have only been here for two months, and just today, I was voicing this frustration with my husband. Just because we have a car and a "gated" house and a refrigerator, we're seen as having an endless supply of money. Just today, our guard (another clue that we're "rich" even though we don't live in the best neighborhood) told us for the second time (in 2 months) that he needs more salary. This is what brought up the conversation between my husband and I because I got the feeling (not exactly sure -- remember the language barrier :-) that he expects that we will raise his salary again and that it won't affect us at all. I think he sees us like I see Bill Gates. Yet, we were just bemoaning our electric bill and how it is higher than we had budgeted. Then, this came along and we really felt the pinch, but he and our other neighbors would never understand this. I understand exactly what you mean in that you want others to know that we don't have an endless supply of money! That was my exact comment today -- we have a budget too and expenses that they don't even know about. But then I remember how much we really do have and I go around the circle in my mind again.

This is going to make for a really long comment, but it's from something I posted about a couple of weeks back along this topic after we first arrived. We had just purchased a vehicle. All vehicles are imported so very expensive here. The blue book value in the U.S. is $4000, but we talked them down to $14,500 here. I like to crunch numbers. If you don't or if my explanation of this is too confusing... sorry... Here we go -- if you make $5 a day (which many here do) and work five days a week, you'd make approximately $1300/year. Our $14,500 vehicle (remember it is 13 years old so we're not talking about a newer model here) is 11 years worth of salary for them at $1300/year. If the average American makes $30,000 a year and you take that $30,000 and multiply it by 11 years, that number is $330,000. So, here's the bottom line. A $14,500 vehicle to someone out here making $1300/year is like a $330,000 vehicle to someone in the States making $30,000 a year. Someone making $30,000 a year in the States could never afford a $330,000 vehicle -- that would seem like a luxury that is so out of reach except for "rich" people. Crunching these numbers helped me to realize why an African would think it's such a big deal to be able to afford a vehicle. They're not seeing our vehicle and thinking $14,500 -- they're seeing $330,000!

So, if we can afford a "$330,000" car, how can we not give them money for food, school, medicine, the dentist, and on and on... and we've only been here for 2 months and we're already facing this frustration!

Great post! I am so interested to hear what others with experience have to say.

jpierce said...

My blog, one handful of rice, seems to dwell on exactly what you are talking about. Who is rich, who is poor, how to we live with more than others, what does it mean to be generous, etc. It is my theme now--examining how to do good for God, not be naive, hear from the Holy Spirit about how to give, where to give, and so on.
Once we see the poor I believe we're never the same again. We can't go on and pretend that the poverty lifestyle doesn't exist. At least I can't. I spend a lot of my thought and prayer time wrestling with just these questions and feel like I am slowly learning how to do just what is needed for the time. I'm impatient. I don't like to wait to hear. But the times I've barged ahead on my own I've seen little long-term fruit and have made (well-intentioned) mistakes. One step at a time and a generous heart tuned to God--it's all I know to do. Jan

Coffeegirl said...

Yes, yes and yes! Each one of you have expressed the very thoughts, feelings and questions I've been wrestling with on this topic (including the language tutor situation!). You are drawing out elements of the issue that are so very reflective of our experience as well. I hear my own thoughts and prayers in your words. It's so great to discuss this with others who understand the complexities of the matter.

Anonymous said...

There are so many aspects to this topic. I don't know where to start (and finish).
For example, I had to stop converting prices on furlough. Otherwise it would drive me crazy to see that a cup of coffee and a piece of cake could feed a family of 10 for a whole day in C.A.R..
On the other hand, I am struggling with the common "knowledge" here in Mali, that every Toubab (white person) has a money printing machine under their beds. As several of you already pointed out - the idea of endless supply.
Again on the other hand (does this mean my third hand?;-)), the Lord had to teach me how generous he is, during a time when it seemed impossible that funds would be sufficient. It was a part of my healing journey, not to spend money out of fear I might not have enough in a more serious situation. It helped me to be more generous to others, trusting the Lord to provide.
I found chapter 14 in "Agents of Transformation" by Sherwood Lingenfelter very interesting and helpful. There are several interesting aspects what it means to handle our finances when living the "pilgrim lifestyle", in dependence on the Lord. For me that also meant responding to requests for financial help in dependence on the Lord, by listening closely to his voice.

My Place of Peace said...

Thanks, Coffeegirl, for getting us thinking and growing together.
We obviously had so much more than our national co-workers and most of our national friends. We tried to be generous with our home, that is, have people over a lot for meals or some american dessert (they loved brownies!). Somehow sharing a meal together is a great equalizer.
Another thing I found to be really helpful in relationships where there was great economic desparity, was to ask them to teach ME something. Whether it was a meal or a skill, it gave them a chance to be the expert and to realize that I valued them and their culture and that they had something important to offer me.
The orphanage I volunteered at did however view me as the rich gringa no matter what I did. I quite regularly got phone calls telling me of needs. I helped when I could and tried to get my national friends involved too in meeting some of those needs so it wasn't all coming from me, but inevitably...the phone calls still came.
I guess the bottom line is you don't ever get to the point where you feel comfortable with the huge economic differences...but maybe that's so we don't get too comfortable in our world and keep looking to Him for wisdom in our daily lives.
I look forward to learning more from the rest of you ladies about your experiences and what God has taught you. Blessings, ya'll!

Rodger and Lynne Schmidt Mozambique said...

Oh, how I wish we had the answers to all of these questions and more! In our first few weeks in Mozambique, when we asked asked a national pastor who has also lived in the U.S. the question about living "with and like the people", he said absolutely not to try to do that because they would think we are being dishonest with them. They know that because we got here on a plane, we have more than they do. He said just open your home to people because they will come in one way or the other. They'll come in over the wall to steal from you or they will come in on your invitation and be your friend.

Basically, we live in the neighborhood where we are ministering. We are the only white people here and everyone knows our house because of it. We have neighbor children and friends coming and going all the time. We also have a steady stream of requests. This week alone, so many people asked for jobs. 2 families have asked for food. Our lives are open books.

Yet we have other responsibilities that dictate that we have a car and internet. We have to keep contact with supporters. WE are the field leaders so responsible for financial reports, etc to the mission. We must travel two times a year to field leader meetings. This is the part of our life that our friends here will never understand, so I'm sure it is just the confusion that we all must live with.

One interesting thing I have found in my conversations with friends here is that everyone is really surprised to find out that we don't own ANYTHING in the United States. They are always amazed when we tell them we sold everything to come here and that, when we go back, we have only the clothes in our suitcase to call our own.

I think we must just be some of the most confusing creatures they have ever met!

Oh, the one luxury that I often feel guilty about is air conditioning in the bedroom. After not sleeping for several weeks because of heat and 3 bouts of malaria in 6 months, even with mosquito nets, we decided it was worth it to us to have our health so that we could actually DO SOMETHING while we are here. It makes me feel like a "high maintenance woman" every time I turn it on. I hate that feeling. Maybe we need to re-think this part of our lives.

Chantelle said...

Like the others, your question and struggle with wealth in the field is a real issue i deal with everyday. So much I could just say "ditto" too that the others brought up. We are trying to find the line between being generous/compassionate people and being taken advantage of, especially when that money gift if met with snears or we dont have a chance to enter in relationship with people. I think that is one line we are making to help. We only give to people that we have the opportunity to enter into relationship with. This means our guards and their families, our language tutors and our neighbors. Trust me, this provides us with more than enough requests for money and help just from these people. I think we want to couple financial help with love and spending time with them, praying etc. Such a hard question!

Alan & Beth McManus said...

It is hard! We live in a huge house. This is because we have to house us, Mom, and a library of over 8000 items. At first people in the church would get bug-eyed over our house, but as we have youth activities here, most of the baby showers, multitudes of guests, and any other church activities that need to be placed somewhere large people have come to realize it isn't just luxury it's because of ministry.

Mom and Dad also taught us not to loan money. We get a lot of requests for that. We just say "no we don't do that." We will, however, take pains to buy things from church members to help them. One lady in our church sells jewelry and make-up. Mom and I often buy from her when we know she's hurting. Others sew, sell flowers, etc. Even if we don't necessarily NEED those items, we will regularly buy them.

Still, one of our leaders said to my husband the other day, "Well, you guys make over 50,000 a month, right?" My husband usually laughs and makes a joke without answering comments like that, but this time it really stuck in his craw. He immediately told the man how much we "make" and all of our expenses, emphasizing ministry expenses. My husband is an accountant so you can be sure it was quite a detailed response. The man hasn't made any more disparaging remarks since. (I don't recommend this response! It worked with this man because he is a close friend and a little bit better off than most in our church.)

I don't know what to do with the dichotomy. I've often thought that maybe we should move, but then where would we put the books that all the MK's use and Mom would have to find another house (as she pays half the rent, we actually pay less rent than many of our church members). How do we give without making ourselves look like Mr. and Mrs. Moneybags?

I've found that we just have decide for ourselves what is best and not get defensive. It's hard, but that's life.

Caroline said...

We first came to the Orient in 1977 and we were considered the "rich missionary". Before we ended up leaving that particular field for another one because of health issues, we had nationals helping us out with offerings for different needs that we had. The economy in that country had changed overwhelmingly.
We now live in the Orient again. We probably are considered the "poor missionaries". We simply do not have the funds to live the normal lifestyle for here. Most people here have the latest products on the market and update them quite frequently. We can't keep up with them and don't want too. But, I can praise the Lord for taking care of us and providing for each and every need we have in very special and unique ways. Just amazing!
Since, we have been on both sides of the tracks...my opinion is it is other people's views of us that put us in different categories. So, it's best to just consider yourself to be stewards of God and realize you answer to Him.

Becky Aguirre said...

I read this post yesterday morning over my second cup of coffee and have been thinking about it ever since! This is a very complicated issue and probably touches everyone who enters into ministry overseas...I have felt the tension since I was young, having grown up an MK as well. It was confusing to be considered so "wealthy" and yet have to wear home-made clothes and scrimp because money was tight...overall, I think my parents did a wonderful job of being good stewards of their money, living frugally and yet supporting other missionaries. It was such a good example for me...but yeah, the tension was always there.

I think everyone has had very good comments and I've enjoyed reading them. Seems like this topic evokes a lot of response! :) I think a lot of it has to do with living with a clear conscience before God and following the leading of the Spirit on a daily basis. I like what My Place of Peace had to say...giving them the opportunity to teach us about something, give them value.

Personally, I struggle with this sometimes, just because my husband is Venezuelan, doesn't mean that we're like all other Latins...and yet we're not really quite American either. We just do the best we can and try to live wisely before God.

Adele said...

Ah, this is something I've been struggling with for the past 3 years of living in rural Kenya. And it's something I struggle with often as I communicate with supporters.

For my own sanity, I do not give up luxuries/necessities like Internet access. When in town, I treat myself to a good meal. For me, it's self care. It's one of the things that helps me survive!

But I hope to never lose compassion for the poor, even when I get several requests for money which I don't have... I've had to learn how to say "no" graciously.

Moreso, I've had to learn how to respond to needs in such a way that I don't step into God's role...

A non-believer friend who came to visit once told me, "Adele, you guys tell your people to pray about needs, and that God will provide, but then YOU raise the money. That means you become God." It's a comment that made me think deeply about how I respond to needs. Never, ever do I want to take God's place. But when God moves me to respond, I also don't want to be disobedient. It is, and will remain, tricky.

What a blessing to discover your blog. Would you please add my blog to your blog roll? The URL is www.adelebooysen.blogspot.com


Lori said...

Interesting post and comments. I find myself feeling a bit out of place with some of the comments as I live in Japan. Here I'm feeling the tension between the decision of shipping a crate from the states verses buying local between my "wants" and "needs". I'm trying to make wise decisions with material processions. As with Caroline, living similarly to the normal household here may not be possible or desirable. The cost of living here is high. So it adds a different twist to the issue. I must admit though getting sucked into the materialistic tenancies here is a big temptation. (even more so than in North America for me.)

I'm sure the drop in the dollar value in many countries also effects us on these issues.

Becky Aguirre said...

You know, though, it's good to hear from the other side of the issue, Caroline and Lori! Thanks for posting the comments even though it's not necessarily the most common experience...It was interesting to hear what your circumstances are and how you deal with it...

Gaults in Lesotho said...

We've been here (Lesotho)for 8 years now, and we still struggle with this. We live in a village on a compound with several national people. Although we use solar power for some lights, charging computer, cell phone, etc., and gas appliances, we definitely live above the level of our friends. On the other hand, there are other people in our village who do use solar power also. And we're only 20 minutes from a decent grocery store.

Then in the nearby country where we do business, we're sometimes almost in culture shock because of yet another culture in which so many people live above our lifestyle.

We have always felt like there's a constant internal tension whether here or in the States. I don't think you ever get used to it, but you do have to be sensitive to God's voice when He tells you that you could maybe do without something. We try to be loving and generous with what God has given us. I know we've made plenty of mistakes though.

I've enjoyed reading from you all out there.

Anonymous said...

Where I live I am looked upon as wealthy only because I am an American. I do not own a vehicle because I simply cannot afford one. The currency here is stronger than the USD. So I take buses to and from my work and to any other place in the city I need to go.

Being reliant on a faith-based support system does however keep my heart and mind focused on the Father. He is my provider. I can do many things for myself such as mail newsletters, make phone calls, and share with congregations but I cannot make people support me financially. That has to come from their obedience to the Father's urgings. It keeps me humble and reliant upon Him.

kimom said...

Thanks for delving into this 'hornet's nest' of financial disparity and wisdom as ministers of the gospel. We work in what I think has been ranked the 10th poorest country in the world, and I grew up around the corner from bill gates, so the disparity is quite tangible. It has brought me to despair, and I have often wanted to give up.

What little I can do for the immense needs of thousands around me seems so pointless - like a drop in an ocean! And yet, a wise missionary told me this year, "It may feel like a drop in the bucket, but every drop counts!"

Anonymous said...

Coffeegirl you have got quite a conversation going on here.

I am coming on in it late because we just got back from our first family vacation that we have taken in the seven years that we have been on the field. Our kids were so excited and it was good to relax. It took quite a bit for us to mentally get to the place that we could bring ourselves to spend on a vacation what most nationals work hard to make in four months.

No easy answers to this one. You can't please everyone.

Thanks for bringing this up.


Anonymous said...

I forgot that I meant to ask you: how you did end up responding to your helper?

And speaking of language helpers we went the same route as you did. We started with someone who could get us conversing with the people. Then when we felt that we needed more technical help we spent a couple weeks of intense grammar training at a school.


Kim said...

This is my first visit to Coffeegirl Confessions after my SIL sent me the link to Women of the Harvest.
I've really enjoyed reading through the comments and seeing we're definitely not alone in our experiences!
We've been on the field not quite 3 months. This isn't our first missionary experience, but this one is "permanent".

We spent one year in Uganda, filling in for missionaries who needed to go on furlough. Right off the bat we were instructed to (1) never loan or give money to anyone; if someone asked, we were to direct them to one of the deacons of the church because they had a fund specifically for helping those in need; (2) pay our workers the local going rate; otherwise you create an imbalance in the system and no one would want to work for any of the nationals who could not afford to pay as much as the foreigners; and (3) always ask before giving anything to anyone for any reason.

That was all good training for there AND here even though we're in a completely different setting now. In Argentina (NOT a third world country) we are still viewed as wealthy even though we have less than many around us, just because we're American.
Our co-workers have graciously passed along the lessons learned in their years of ministry... It's better to give someone a job than outright gifts of money. People are proud and unless you know someone well, do NOT offer used clothes or other items.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: If at all possible, it's a good idea to ask the veteran missionaries or national pastors how to handle the comments and/or requests for money or whatever.
I struggled with how little our workers earned in Uganda but before the year was out I saw the wisdom of the advice we'd been given in the beginning. It was a different world, a different culture and I just couldn't begin to understand the impact a simple act of generosity could have. I'm trying to keep that in mind in this very different setting now.

Coffeegirl said...

I ran into internet trouble when I tried to post this comment before and only now am getting back to it. You all know how it goes!

@ngie, I was wondering if I would get away without sharing what I said in response to the question that sparked this posting! I started my response by recounting an experience I'd told her about previously. As part of the discipline steps we took with several of the girls in the Children's Home who were caught stealing clothing, we took them to help distribute clothing to children who are living in desperate conditions - some in trash dumps to scavenge for salvageable food or items the could repurpose and sell. After that experience, the girls found a new appreciation for the provisions and protection they receive at the home and eagerly shared their reflections with the other children at the home.

I did my best to explain that for many missionaries, even though they usually have limited resources themselves just as the kids in the Children's Home do, compared to the areas they are working in they have much to be grateful for and are considered to be very privileged by many who are living with less than they are. I might answer differently today if I could do it again, but she understood my example and we continued our discussion from there.

Thanks again to all of you for sharing your thoughts, lessons learned and points of view on this issue. I know benefited from your honest reflections, and trust others did as well.


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