I have been spotted! The black face trick is not working. I am surrounded by dozens of other faces with as dark a hue as mine, but somehow, I still seem to stick out. I am dressed in the same inconspicuous, casual attire as they wear. However, it does not work. A voice cries out my name; ‘Michael! Michael! Over here! Come over here!’
Without thinking I look up, unwittingly confirming my identity. After that, the rush is on. The seemingly quiet stroll through the market place has now become a mine field for me. The merchants and beggars have taken notice. ‘The rich American has arrived. Let’s go sell him our wares, or at least tell him our woes. One way or another, Michael will part with some money today.’
This may seem a bit of an exaggeration, but it is actually right on the mark. I have found it almost impossible to befriend the common man here in Kenya, without being…., well actually on the mark. I am marked because no matter how I look at it, I live a life of a multimillionaire compared with 90% of the Kenyan population. I don’t have to worry about water, food, clothes, electricity, and transportation, health care or even entertainment. I have two dogs that ingest greater than twice the caloric intake of the average child, and they never have to work for it. I hire guards to keep watch at night over my accumulation of ‘stuff’. They lose sleep and could potentially lose their lives, just so I can have the luxury of the internet and a variety of pizza toppings.
So why do I complain when I am confronted in the market with other black faces who track me down with the accuracy of an implanted computer chip? Why don’t I just give as they ask of me? Why don’t I just give ungrudgingly, without expecting in return? Why don’t I just give generously and gregariously?
The reason is that I don’t really know how to give. After 18 years of service in missions I still struggle with giving. How do I help the ‘Pourous of the Poor’? I coined this phrase to mean, no matter how much I give, it seems to never fill the gap. My own cup of material wealth is literally overflowing, into the saucer, onto the table and staining the table cloth in the process. It spills on my shoes and on to the nice clean carpet which serves to comfort my well heeled feet.
I have more than enough and yet, the more I give, it seems the more they want, need and have now come to expect. The vessel into which I pour my overflow seems to be full of holes, truly porous. It never fills up.
I know I will always be a mark. I can never know who is a friend, foe or fan. In fact the only true distinction is made when I am welcomed into a home and generosity is extended towards me and nothing is asked in return. Because this is so infrequent, I have become ‘paranoid’ when it comes to making even casual comments about the nature of my work, or my education.
I refer to myself upon entering a home or marketplace as ‘Michael’. This is not solely out of humility (though I am very humble!?!). You can stop laughing now. It is my best attempt to hide amongst the poor so that I can learn of their true desires, without the guise of being the ‘learned, enriched and enlightened one’. It is a feeble attempt to say the least because I really know no matter how I try to identify, I can always leave. I can pretend to be poor, but it is only like playing house as a child. We would make mud pies because it was fun. We would pretend to go to work. We would pretend to own a business. If we lost the job, or the business failed, we always knew we would eat that night. The mud pies were not for eating. However here, food is so scarce and expensive, just as in Haiti, who knows just how far people will go. They could muddle through a meal of mud.
That is why the poorest of the poor call me ‘Michael’ and not ‘Doctor Johnson’. I recognize that very few professionals, dignitaries or politicians in this country would allow themselves to be treated with such indignity as to be called by their first name. They would most certainly not forego the half dozen handles denoting their titles; e.g., B.A. M.D., FACS, Dip. ABS, CDEFGHIJ.., etc.
Just how do we satisfy the longings and fill the needs of porous of the poor?
Jesus had this very same problem. I think He may have invented it. He recognized that the ‘porous’ you will have with you always. He knew for certain that people in the market place would chase Him down, seek Him out, no matter how He tried to blend in with the crowd. He was well known to have everything they needed or could ever desire. Healings could be had from the hem of his garment, or the spit from His mouth. Thousands could be fed, just by placing in His hands the lunch of a little boy. A word spoken from Him could raise the dead from their graves and pay the taxes from the mouth of a fish. He had power. Yet He decided to go in the guise of the common man.
That is where I must start to meet the needs of the porous of the poor. Right now I give from what I can stand to waste from my wealth. I am giving from what I carefully measure so that I don’t miss it. I dare not commend myself as generous.
Giving starts with giving ourselves. We must allow ourselves to be marked. We must allow ourselves to be vulnerable. It is a difficult balance: to be vulnerable yet vicious. That is to be a peaceful as doves, yet harmless as serpents. Knowing how to say no and do so because I don’t want to feed into the cycle of dependency and patriarchal, feudalist, neo-colonialism is a very fine balance. I don’t know the answer.
I do know that we must allow ourselves to be amongst the porous of the poor. We do so because ultimately we are amongst the porous of the poor. God recognizes our poverty of spirit and He calls us to sit face to face with those who know poverty in a way we will never know it. When we submit to this call, we will understand how to fill the longings and true needs of the porous of the poor.