Yesterday morning I piled all of our baby stuff into the back of a minivan taxi and took it to a crisis pregnancy shelter that a friend of mine helps run. For weeks I have been boxing up baby clothes, washing blankets and playthings, and gradually taking items out of daily use to add to the growing pile. Every time I would pack a onesie or a baby outfit I would think, “Oh, this is what Caleb wore on the plane when we brought him back to Vietnam.” “Awww, these are the onesies Aunt Jill brought to Singapore for Nathan.” “Oh look, the trendy little overalls James and Katie sent us.” Aside from the few practical things I bought for the boys, all of the clothing reminded me of someone—my mom, my aunts, my grandma, the ladies at church who gave us a shower, friends from college, Daniel's mom and sister, and on and on. All of it was past being useful, but all of it was still very dear.
Being a good nomad, I stiffened myself to the task and mercilessly culled and boxed everything that lacked a practical purpose (well, almost everything). I consoled myself with the thought of encouraging unwed mothers and providing for babies rescued from abortion or abandonment. I imagined the women enjoying the gifts as much as I had when they were first given to us. I pictured Vietnamese babies being shown off at church wearing Caleb's overalls or Nathan's onesies. I've lived in Vietnam long enough that I should have known better. Things are never as romantic as I like to make them.
When we arrived at the shelter, three of the babies were asleep sprawled on a bamboo floor mat with their caregivers. The women jumped up and invited us into a one-room home with beds in two corners for the mothers and a row of cots for infants. The back door opened to an outdoor kitchen and latrine. One of the mothers, a mentally handicapped girl who was found pregnant and living outside of the local market, sprang forward with her baby and thrust him into my arms. I reacted just in time to keep his head from lolling backward and was instantly reminded of a small detail I had overlooked. Vietnamese infants and toddlers typically don't wear diapers. As soon as the baby was dropped in my arms, I felt something warm oozing down my elbow and seeping through my shirt. I began to pray for the best, but the stench confirmed the worst. I found one of the caregivers and tried to pass the baby off nonchalantly. She whisked him away to be hosed down outside, and I was led to a tap where I could wash up amidst a pile of breakfast dishes piled on the ground.
As I washed my hands and rubbed dishsoap into my shirt, it began to dawn on me that onesies, overalls, footed pajamas, even pants and shorts weren't all that useful to moms whose babies don't wear diapers. The infants were dressed only in worn cotton t-shirts. They had cloths tucked under their bottoms inside the cots, and the moms or caregivers held similar cloths on their laps when they rocked or fed the babies. The toddlers wore two-piece outfits similar to pajamas. Periodically they would be herded into a corner and helped to do their business in a small bucket.
I began to realize that the items which were so precious to me were of very little value, except maybe as a novelty, to the women living and working in the shelter. As this realization sunk in, my face felt warm. I really should have known better. It was too late to pile the boxes back into the taxi, but I couldn't shake the sense of regret and embarrassment—embarrassment at the inappropriateness of my gift and regret at the wastefulness of it.
Whether we're willing to admit it or not, this is sometimes the unfortunate reality in cross-cultural work. We take what we treasure (our time, effort, relationships at home, abilities, titles, and roles), box it all up, and give it away. We do so at great cost to ourselves, but not always for the real or lasting benefit of others. We are outsiders and often do not understand the situation or the need until after we've made our various well-intentioned but misguided attempts to help. I chuckled recently at a story about women in a remote African tribe receiving t-shirts from an American church. The ladies in the church had seen photos of the tribal women naked from the waist up and were concerned for their modesty. Upon receiving the shirts, the tribal women were perplexed. They didn't wear the shirts at all until one enterprising mom led the way by cutting holes in the appropriate places so she could continue breastfeeding her child. Problem solved! Because I didn't raise money for the t-shirts, or collect them, or travel half-way around the world to distribute them, this story is funny. When I think about moms at the shelter trying to figure out what to do with that cute, striped onesie Nathan wore in his first days home from the hospital, I'm less inclined to laugh.
A well-made sacrifice is bittersweet. There is a strange comfort in grieving the loss of something that has clearly served others. We want to believe that we are helping. The difficulty is that sometimes we are just participating. I made Mexican food earlier this week. In Vietnam, making Mexican food means making salsa and rolling out tortillas from scratch. Caleb loves it when I give him a ball of dough and let him bang the rolling pin around trying to make his own tortillas. At best, he gets them started for me. At worst, I have to begin again when he is distracted. In either case, I spend the time between dinner and baths cleaning flour from every crevice in the kitchen. In spite of the extra effort it requires, I love watching Caleb “help.” I enjoy sharing the time and experience with him. This really seems to be the best metaphor for life and service in general. We are invited to participate in something grand, the redemption of the world, not because of our expertise but because of God's kindness.
Sometimes a sacrifice is valuable just because it is a sacrifice. It reminds us that this world is not our home and encourages us to hold material things lightly. When we sacrifice (even something as ultimately insignificant as used baby stuff), we share in some small way in the suffering of Christ who sacrificed everything for us. In the same way, service can be valuable just because it is service. We learn to put our own interests behind the interests of others. While we should seek to be wise in how we care for others and discerning in how we use the resources we've been given, we can't let ourselves be paralyzed by the fear of making mistakes. Nor should we be held back by the possibility that the cost will be greater than our calculations. We learn generosity by giving. We learn to love by loving. We are still learning even when we blunder and struggle.
In the end, God will accomplish what he has set out to accomplish. I can hope to play a small part in that, but what he really wants is for me to participate in the process—to love him and to love my neighbor—leaving the rest in his hands.
Well, this is a long post to make up for a long silence. Hopefully I will find a few spare minutes to write more soon.