In another Sunday Sermon from Samoa I share the words of other Palagi who see things wrong in Samoa and explain how speaking the truth in love creates a solution for a troublesome situation. Doing this helps others to grow and mature (and in a Christian context, in their faith). Simple. Effective. Powerful.
There’s a lot wrong in Samoa. On the surface it’s probably more of a challenge to deal with than many other countries and poverty is a major issue here. In an editorial, a local Palagi journo writes about the Millenium Development Goals:
- Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger;
- Achieve universal primary education;
- Promote gender equality and empower women;
- Reduce child mortality;
- Improve maternal health;
- Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases;
- Ensure environmental sustainability;
- Develop a Global Partnership for Development.
[Pic: Samoan kitchen (Umu Kuka) used for cooking over a fire – an Umu on Sundays and boiled or fried foods during the week. This Umu Kuka is behind a nice modern three bedroom Palagi house with stove and Palagi kitchen (my sister’s house – she is in New Zealand) and it remains empty. Power is too expensive to cook on when coconut husks are free. Furthermore it’s what the people here are used to. Is subsistence living “poverty”?]
Of these he says:
But perhaps Samoa’s biggest MDG challenge is goal 1 – eradicate extreme poverty and hunger and we’re certainly not alone in that.
As PM Tuilaepa [Prime Minister] himself points out the proportion of the country’s population living below the poverty line is cause for concern. And this is where we have the most work to do.
Samoans are ready to do that work if given the chance. Your newspaper’s Helping Hand page is the living proof if any were needed. Each week – sometimes each day – we’re approached by people willing to help their fellow Samoans who may be in need.
These people never seek recognition. They shun any and all publicity. They simply want to make a difference.
So the will to eradicate poverty is there. The means, though, will be harder to find.
Generosity alone will. not eradicate poverty, though it can and does make a difference in the daily lives of people in need. However, economic growth and development is the only known cure for poverty and it cannot happen overnight and probably not in the coming five years either.
But Samoa stands more chance than some and as good a chance as many of achieving MDG1. It has fertile land, a stable economy with the promise of future growth, a stable political system and a giving people.
Whatever we do, the poor, as the saying goes, will always be with us. But there are degrees of poverty and it is the worst of these that MDG1 seeks to address.
That there are people today – yes, even in Samoa – who live below the basic needs poverty line should be an affront to us all. These are people for whom life is an ordeal. There’s nothing noble about poverty – just the opposite in fact, for it takes away all human dignity and crushes all human hope.
Five years isn’t a long time in which to remedy a problem of such magnitude. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the effort.
Russell Hunter, editor of the Samoa Observer (the local rag)
His paper runs a “help page” for people in need. His commentary contains good words. The “saying” Russell refers to is actually the words of Christ in John 12:8: “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
A common understanding of these words is that it justifies the existence of poverty. It doesn’t. See here and here. These words are more an explanation of reality, but I still don’t see Jesus walking around spending much of His time giving lots of poor people money or food. I’ll get onto His approach to poverty shortly.
Another Palagi, calling themselves Disillusioned Palagi writes about their experiences in a rural Samoan village (Savaia) quite negatively.
The generosity of the Samoan has got out of hand and has become a punishment. Many have spoken about wanting to leave the village for a new life elsewhere – “Too much Fa’alavelale!” not enough compassion.
Here Jones touches upon one of the social causes of poverty for many here in Samoa (and immense comparative wealth by a few others). I remember the word Fa’alavelave by saying to myself Fa’a (The way) and then Lovey (as in dovey) meaning “The lovey dovey way” where everyone has to “give, give, give” under threat of village/matai shame/punishment when they really have no “got, got, got”!
It’s an endless cycle of poverty enforcement through social/cultural expectations – a major problem that has been talked about within Samoan culture for years – without any resolution. Most abandon ship to offshore waters thinking that they will be better off in a foreign land with more money. The deception of chasing money however is that the same trouble happens offshore where the same cultural expectations exist. It’s just that there is comparatively more money being dealt with, thus you have areas of poverty within a wealthy nation where the “poverty mentality” and social peer pressure continues unabated.
The answer to the trouble of poverty is not more money. If it was, then certain areas South and West Auckland would not contain people still trapped in the social and cultural expectation (some say requirement) to give so much to the church and social things to the point of bleeding, just like back at home here in Samoa. I have friends who encourage and hail the “generous Samoan Christians” but I only wish that they could get behind the scenes just a little to see the real forces at play. In Samoa I doubt that there is any rural Samoan who wouldn’t agree that Samoan way is “too hard” and that what Jones is talking about here (and in the original letter to the editor) is absolutely true. Dozens of them have shared this same sentiment with me face to face from all over Samoa.
But the writer here implies a suggested solution “compassion”. Compassion is only a feeling or a state of mind. It doesn’t solve the troubles. It may motivate us to act but compassion is not the solution. So what is?
First let’s be absolutely clear about this . . . money is not. There has been more money tipped into Samoa than you can count. The country has progressed but at the village level things are just the same as they were despite the money and donations. Others in power make political mileage out of donations to the country but it is well known that money gets slipped sideways into the hands of those who “play the money game well” – i.e. the wealthy.
Education is not “it” either. The saying goes that a fool with education is just an educated fool. [That’s just the saying, I’m not calling all Samoans fools here!]
I take a lot of my understanding of the way things really are from the Scriptures and Jesus was quite direct when talking about taking money and giving it to the poor. His words were astonishingly simple although puzzling for those of us taught that Christ and Christians loved and should love the poor. He basically said “Don’t give the money to the poor for there will always be the poor!” I’ll get onto what He does say to focus on in a minute.
I take from this gem of wisdom the understanding that giving money to the poor is a bad investment. It matches with my own experience. If I give to a poor Samoan who says “Can I have this [or that]?” a million times a day then you know what? They ask for something two million times a day. Their mentality is that I need something so I will ask for it and therefore you should give it to me – because you have it and I don’t.
Eventually all that does is makes two people poor.
I’ve watched the complaints levelled at the current administration about looking after their mates, preventing the distribution of aid money to the needy and a gazillion other grizzles about their conduct. I don’t have any inside knowledge about government finances but generally where there’s smoke there is fire, so it is likely that things do go down at a high level that protect the interests of the few BUT (and please don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not saying this is RIGHT), BUT I DO UNDERSTAND the wisdom in preventing the distribution of heap loads of cash to poor people – just because they had an earthquake, Tsunami or whatever. There is wisdom in using cash wisely for projects that have wide social benefit rather than just buying a poor person some smokes or beer for a day or so.
The SWAP Foundation too has the same ethical issues in working with rural villages – many of whom want to conduct Village Stays as part of our new business. We will only work with those who want to work, who understand our vision and who have faith enough to do their part of the deal. This is the idea that a hand up is better than a hand out.
The way that Christ did things was to encourage relationship with Him FIRST and then let the blessings flow.
This is the vital part of the poverty equation that many people miss. The deception is that business ideas, jobs, or money or grants are the answer. They are not and never will be. When we do what God calls us to do (doing the right thing, working hard and having faith) THEN the Lord is free to bless us and use us. This instantly breaks through the poverty mentality problem.
It is simply amazing to see (as I have so many times with people around me) that when people understand, have hope, and work hard, that their mindset change breaks the yoke of poverty overnight. It happens without the faith component too, but with the Christian faith it has a depth of meaning that is at times quite touching.
In the last two days I have had several examples of dealing with trouble in the same way that Christ dealt with things – shooting straight, speaking the truth in love and instructing people to “Go therefore and do the right thing”.
I was introduced to the brother of a team member a while back. He stumbled out his Pigeon English to me in a drunken blur; made little sense and was basically a joke, although sad. A mature man he was introduced as the guy who was a “loser” done for drugs possession in the past and helping himself to things that weren’t his (Now where have I heard that before?!).
I got a phone call:
“Dennis, can you please help?”
“Here we go again!
Bl**** Samoans bludging again! How can I help you guys this time?” I thought to myself “I wonder how much it will cost me this time? . . . How much have I got in the bank today? . . . What do I need this week to survive?”
“My mother needs help to bail out my brother – he’s been arrested for drugs use/possession and she doesn’t want him to go to jail.” Yup this was THAT brother in trouble again. He’d got busted. Dobbed in by his wife. Hmmm. Great wife? Well maybe not.
This sort of thing happens all the time apparently but I found out that yes, true, the mother was bailing him out but she was exercising tough love for the guy and he was being given one last chance to sort his life out. I had the honour of telling the guy that I had taken everything I had out of my New Zealand bank account to save his bacon and that he had better get his act together because of what his mother and me and others were doing for him.
He listened graciously – they all do that over here when you talk – it is their mark of respect for the “Talking Chief”. But the real tenderness came when I stopped him from making promises to me. “Sorry pal. This is not about me. It is about doing the right thing, the right thing by God. Not by me or your mother or the others who are trying to help you!” was the essence of the message. Do the right thing BY HIM. Work hard FOR HIM. Have faith IN HIM. Not us and there were a few tears as the people who were there recognised the truth in the words, spoken in love.
Such is the Christian walk. Dealing with trouble directly, speaking the truth in love. It takes guts for a foreigner in Samoa to do it, but that’s my role, and it appears that people are being touched as a result.
The same thing happened with the theft of one of our mobile phones. Another theft I hear you say? Yes!
The local mobile company Digicel tracked down the recipient and user of the stolen phone. Thieves are soooo dumb aren’t they? Using the phone to call all their mates and transfer money to their own phones leaves a perfect trail for a simple track and trace!
The Secondary School Principal who was helping find the facts translated for me to a 16 year old girl who had done the right thing the night before. After an embarrassing encounter where she had to explain all to the Principal in front of a Palagi businessman, I spoke to her again directly. Essentially I said “I forgive you for the one phone call you made on my phone. Thank you for trying to get your brother to return it to me. That was the right thing to do and I appreciate that you tried to stand up for the right thing”.
But then the tender moment came when I said more (again through the interpreter). “When you do the right thing, and work hard, and have faith, the Lord will bless you!” and it was explained to me: “She understands. She knows what you are saying is the truth, and you have touched her. That’s why she’s crying. Thank you!
While we were waiting for the School President to track down the brother who bought it off the thief, we had some time to talk. Well actually a LOT of time; almost two hours! And so we talked about lots of things – her school, why I was in Samoa and of course I preached. You can’t talk to me for a couple of hours without the God thing raising it’s
ugly head now can you?
She looked at me and said at one stage – truly you ARE a Christian! Over here everyone is a Christian, it’s just that they are mainly church-going Christians, not the real ones, if you know what I mean! That’s the context in which she was speaking. And she was amazed that as I spoke she had just that morning spoken the same message herself. Touched, she was.
That Samoan “loser” never knew that a Palagi would come in from out of the blue and give his mother every last cent that he had to help bail him out of jail and then preach to him to do the right thing when he was facing time inside.
That frightened girl never knew when she left for school that a Palagi businessman would be thanking her for arguing with her brother the night before to do the right thing and return the phone to the rightful owner.
That School Principal had no idea that a Palagi would walk into her office and preach to her the same words that she was preaching herself that very morning.
I didn’t know the details of these events before they happened onto my doorstep either, but there are dozens and dozens of situations where I find myself in the midst of Trouble in Paradise, and I am recognising them all as “God moments” when they happen. I now expect them where ever I go here. Sometimes its strangers. Other times it is within our own team.
The answer to the trouble I meet here is always the same – it’s getting serious with the Creator and doing the right thing – by Him. Oh so hard to do when we are so proud, but oh so simple when we humble ourselves enough to just do it!
Here endeth the lesson.