Tuesday, September 30, 2014

T-Shirts and To-Go Cups

A Challenging Look at Waste and Instant Gratification in America 

Today’s culture is one of to-go cups and T-shirts. We make cool T-shirts for every volunteer day, event, and mission trip that we go on or group that we are in. Stop the Violence campaign, National Honor Society, First Presbyterian Church, Methodist SWAG Day, Fill-in-the-Blank 5K Run, etc. We run to Starbucks to grab that latte, then trash the paper cup half an hour later. What's wrong with this story? you may ask.

Managing our Money

While T-shirts can be a great means of publicity, there is also a great deal of waste involved, financial and otherwise. First: think about all the money that goes into buying these shirts, largely for the same groups of people who received them last year, or maybe already have 25 T-shirts laying around in their closet at home. Couldn't that money go to support something bigger, a more valuable cause? Yet people will without a second thought write a check for $10 to get the official group T-shirt. It has become almost an unspoken expectation of every organization, college group, or community event in this country.

What to do with the leftovers?

Second: what about the material waste? And by that I mean, when the so-called event is over, where do all the extra T-shirts go? The organization, smart and prepared as it may be, has taken the initiative to order ahead and estimate the number of shirts that would be needed. No one would want to have to wait another week for that custom design. No one would be able to go without. No one could make do with the wrong size. No is just not an option here, in my society. Unfortunately, that “no one” means that organizations like mine, which are doing awesome work, have to spend extra money and prepare for those who we expect to serve with us. And when they don’t come…now, what do we do with all of these leftovers?


Undermining cultural values

Every year thousands of organizations are left with “extra” shirts that don't get used. Where do these shirts go? Of course it wouldn't be acceptable to make ourselves wear a shirt that was from last year (gasp!), so they either get thrown out, sent to Goodwill, or shipped to Africa. Kids in Rwanda may be wearing that tossed-out VBS shirt from 2010 that no one here wanted anymore. Do they care what the shirt says? Or even know? Probably not. But it gives me a weird, unsettled feeling. Like other people, who are worth less, are receiving our trash with eagerness. I can't count the number of times I saw people in Ecuador sporting U.S. Army hats, Chicago Bulls shirts, or New York sweatshirts. And they did not express shame or sadness for wearing these clothes. They were thankful to just have a shirt to wear, regardless of the lettering. Yet are we undermining the values of their culture by throwing our waste at them with a smile on our face? And it is really our role to define what needs a culture or community has? Here is a great article about how first-world charities with good intentions often do more harm than good.

Give it to me right now!

As for the coffee, we as a society have become obsessed with the idea of instant, to-go, or ready-made products. We just don’t have time to cook or prepare things ourselves. Now I’m talking about time, and how we often waste culture and relationships because we put work or other duties first. There is something special, in my mind, about sitting down to drink a cup of coffee in a real mug. Not only does it feel more genuine, but the fact that you took the time to brew that dark roast yourself, maybe with a friend, shows that you have taken a breather, time to reflect on life, if only for 20 minutes of your morning. So often we insist on having things right now. God’s timing doesn’t work that way last time I checked, and neither does the rest of the world.

Disposable things and people

And let’s not forget how many Styrofoam cups and plastic bags are already going into landfills daily in the U.S. alone. Every time I think about it, it scares me a little more. This summer, every youth group that came to Tuskegee on a mission trip used plastic ware all week. Why? They didn't want to wash all the dishes. We as a culture need to begin thinking long-term, permanent, renewable. It has become so easy to buy a product and throw it away when we are finished with it. This is also true in relationships. With many people moving across the country often for job opportunities and other reasons, friendships are hard to maintain. The divorce rate in our nation is now higher than ever: 53% of marriages now end in divorce. When did relationships become so disposable?


All of that being said, I do not think t-shirts are inherently a bad idea. At ARM, we save our extra shirts from every event to sell later in the year as an additional fundraiser for our ministry, which ultimately goes to help low-income families in Alabama. That intention in itself is a good thing. But we must be careful of allowing ourselves, especially as Christians, to be influenced by the general culture that rules our society. It may seem overwhelming trying to figure out how to take that small step in conserving resources, or taking the time to make things yourself, when they are so easily available elsewhere. Below I have compiled a few ideas to chew on, that I hope you will consider.   

How can I become a more socially conscious consumer?
  • If your organization frequently purchases T-shirts, try buying from a local company that makes their shirts here in the U.S., instead of possibly supporting child labor in China.
  • Think of ways to decrease your annual clothing consumption. Maybe this means making do with a smaller wardrobe, or buying a few essential pieces instead of splurging on those hot new heels or cute headband (yes, I am guilty of this, too).
What are some ways in which I can decrease my carbon footprint?
  • Increase purchase of reusable items, and try not to buy one-time use items like paper cups or plastic silverware.       
  • Decide to be okay with having less. Owning more junk means more stress anyway!

How can I think about others when I make daily decisions?
  • Read the book Everyday Justice by Julie Clawson. Understand your purchasing power. With great power comes great responsibility.
  • Everything we consume is made and processed by someone, somewhere. We have become so distanced from the actual hands that created the product. Take a minute to pray for the person and the work that contributed to your enjoyment of that new pair of headphones. 

For everyone who made it to the bottom of this post, thank you! I hope that amidst my ramblings, you were able to see the heart behind these seemingly radical ideas. As I continue to adjust to being back in the U.S., I am trying to challenge myself to enjoy some of the awesome privileges of living here, while at the same time not falling into complacency. I am trying my best to live a life of non-conformity and justice, and to think about how I can participate in bringing about God's kingdom for all people.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Day at ARM

Now that the summer is over, my work responsibilities have changed. I am no longer working with kids at day camp every day, but instead go to the office to answer phone calls, visit families, promote the organization, and brainstorm ideas to make our ministry more effective. My official title is Outreach Coordinator, although I do a lot of everything.

My main role right now is casework and family visits, specifically to help homeowners apply and qualify for grants through the USDA that would help cover the cost of repairing their home. Having worked with these grants for several months, I am now the resident expert and have been given the opportunity to train volunteers from a local United Methodist Church that is interested in assisting the full-time staff with the grant process. It is exciting feeling confident in this area of my work, and to be able to share that knowledge with others to ultimately help more families.

The grant process, like much social work, is not really hard, just tedious and time-consuming. Families often become overwhelmed by the "big packet", so we go and help them make sense of it all. Having a social work background, I feel right at home doing these visits and filling out paperwork. But more than that, I have been personally touched by my interactions with some of the homeowners I have visited. These individuals, many of them elderly, are so kind and welcoming, even to a stranger (myself), who is new to the organization and community. Time after time, I have experienced a joy simply from spending time with these individuals.

Take Ms. Wilson, for example. The first time I went to see her, she answered the door and warily asked who was there. The construction coordinator and I explained to her that we had called about taking a look at her home and starting the grant process to do some repairs. She opened the door and hesitantly led us into the kitchen. The entire visit, Ms. Wilson eyed us carefully, and though she answered our questions, I could see the doubt in her eyes. She was used to not being able to trust people.

Four months later, I visited Ms. Wilson again, this time to help her finish the "big packet" to qualify for the grant. She smiled when I came to the door, and right away offered me a seat at her kitchen table. The whole time we were sitting together, she laughed and made jokes. At the end we prayed together, and she said, "Thank you. That was just what I needed." As I left she commented that next time she would have to make a pie to share with me. What just happened? I thought.

Somehow between these two visits, Ms. Wilson's view of us transformed. Whether it was the persistent phone calls or diligence to quickly complete her paperwork, I don't know. But what I do know is that my job here at ARM as a missionary is not just the forms, the emails, or the phone messages. It's building relationships. Connecting with people. Engaging communities. Inviting them to be a part of the work we do.

When I'm not visiting families or filling out grant paperwork, I'm usually answering phone calls, coordinating upcoming events like Make a Difference Day, or working on our bimonthly e-newsletter (send me your email if you'd like to subscribe). I've also been able to get to know some of our new staff! I have thoroughly enjoyed these past two months. I'm getting into the swing of things here, understanding and taking ownership of what ARM stands for, and actively participating in the discussions of how to better serve with and in our communities in Alabama. Let's extend the love of Christ!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

My Ecuadorian Re-education

A few weeks ago I read a book called Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. It's a heart-warming, funny, yet thought-provoking novel about a Chinese boy from the city who is sent to a small village to receive his "re-education" during China's Cultural Revolution, a period of mandated change ordered by leader Mao Zedong. As I finished the novel, I began to compare my experience living in a quaint mountain village in Ecuador, which was extremely different than my life up to that point, to the narrator's story.

Before living in Romerillos, Ecuador, I had really only been resident of three places: Aurora, Indiana, where I grew up and went to high school; Holland, Michigan, where I spent four lovely years completing my bachelor's degree; and San Jose, Costa Rica, where although I was never an official resident, I served as a missionary through YWAM for eight months. Now none of these towns (even San Jose, which is a city of about half a million people) felt enormous to me, and they were definitely nothing compared to large cities like Chicago or New York City. But all three of those locations seemed infinitely bigger than the tiny Ecuadorian town of 500.

It's funny looking back now. I never thought of living in a city as attractive. Life in an urban setting sounded so busy and chaotic, with so many people, traffic, and little time or space to just breathe. I thoroughly enjoyed living in the places I did, especially Holland, which despite its size had a lot to offer as far as cultural activities, tourism, and cures for the typical bored college student. So I was mostly content to be sent to a small town in Ecuador. Little did I know just how small it would be until I arrived.

Living in Romerillos changed me in more ways than I could have imagined. I witnessed firsthand the intense, backbreaking work that it is to live in the country, with agricultural produce being a family's main source of income. The majority of children and families that I worked with in Romerillos owned a small piece of land and worked on it from dawn to dusk to provide for their families. I learned to give thanks to God for blessings such as having a dry home on a rainy day, and for friendship on a lonely evening. 

I learned about finding satisfaction in life, that's it's more than just having a prestigious job or expensive things. It's about taking in the beautiful mountain view from outside my window, hearing the sounds of children's laughter as their feet pounded the stairs to my apartment. About prioritizing relationships over time, taking a few extra minutes of my morning to chat with neighbors before heading off to teach. About sharing a joke with someone in another language, feeling like part of the family.

These are just a few of the many lessons I received in Romerillos. Above all, I learned to live in a way that I had never done before, with people who were very different than myself, but also very similar. Now, looking back, my Ecuadorian re-education was challenging in many ways, but most definitely rewarding. And just as the narrator in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress looks back on his time in the village with nostalgia but also deep appreciation, I can remember my time in Romerillos and know that I have been forever changed.