This post is an excerpt from a sermon I gave at First United Methodist Church of Point Richmond in December 2015.
I saw a sign recently on a bathroom. It was claiming the public restroom space as a safe space for everyone. It was a co-ed bathroom. Anyone could use it – male, female, transgender, everyone across the spectrum. “Assume I belong,” the sign said. No matter what I look like, if I’m using this restroom, assume I belong.
Establishing categories helps us make order of a complex world. It simplifies things to think of two genders – male and female – as fixed, obvious things. When I assume that anyone belongs in my “my” bathroom, I acknowledge that everything is not as simple as that.
King Jordan was the first deaf president of Gallaudet University, a deaf school. Before 1988 the school had only had hearing presidents, not one of their own from the deaf community. I think there are some assumptions behind this: ‘It’ll just be easier to have a hearing president; they’ll have been better trained; they’ll be able to talk to the media and donors easier.’ King Jordan concluded the interview by saying, “deaf people can do everything except hear.” Assume I can do it, he was saying. Assume I am capable. Assume the students want someone like themselves to lead them.
Sarah Owendi, Nairobi, Kenya: “I used to wash clothing. I was living day by day. When I receive the Spirit in Action grant, I invested in cereals. Now I pay the rent, feed kids, clothe myself. I lived only on handouts before from Josephine. Now I stand on my own 2 feet. Rent is 1500 shillings per month. I did used to earn 200 shillings. Now I can earn 1000 shillings a week.”
A Smart Risk: Assume Best Intentions
This brings me to my work giving grants and supporting families and communities in Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda. What assumptions do we have about Africans? First of all, that they are all alike, rather than assuming that Africa is a continent with 54 different countries and many more different cultures. We have assumptions about poverty, desperation, and violence as a normal, everyday occurrence.
Some charities rely on the old assumptions. The pictures of crying children asking for money assume that the child doesn’t want anything more than you to come in and save them. It assumes they are helpless to improve their own future.
With Spirit in Action, I want to challenge these assumptions and instill new ones. “Assume that I can be an entrepreneur,” people like Mestina in Malawi are saying. (Read Mestina’s story here.)
Mestina with Tanya. Showing off the family’s new kitchenware. (Malawi)
People sometimes ask me how we know that people are using the money that we give them well. Part of it is that we have on-the-ground local coordinators who help ensure that people are using the grants for the intended purposes. Another part of it is that we trust them.
In a way, we assume that they will use the grant wisely. Why assume that? Well, because for many poor families who want to provide a better future for their children, this $150 is their great chance to take a step forward in life. I assume they don’t want to mess it up. I assume they want to use the money to start that business they’ve been dreaming of.
Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” It’s only unawares if we assume that it takes a certain kind of person to be an angel, and if we assume that the person in front of us doesn’t fit the mold.
What if we assume that an angel can be, could be anyone? Then our call is to entertain those around us, letting go of old assumptions and embracing a new lens.
Elizabeth Nyambura, Nairobi, Kenya: “I used to work in a hotel. A hotel is what we call the roadside restaurant. I made 100 shillings ($1) a day. With the first grant I started selling shoes. I go to small markets to sell shoes. I can pay for rent now, and for school fees. My extended family members are benefiting from the work that I do.”