I spent this last weekend up in Portland representing the organization I work for, Plant With Purpose, at the Justice Conference.
There was a lot of talking. Speakers and workshops and pre-conferences and exhibitors and videos. I spouted out my Plant With Purpose elevator speech to hundreds of justice seekers, from the starry-eyed to the cynical–boiling down the complexity of poverty and injustice and environmental restoration and transformation and the stories of farmers like Gumersindo and Hoita and staff members like Graciela and Durbel and Lazare into a thirty second, digestible sound bite.
If you’ve followed this blog for long, you know I prefer the stories, the narratives, and posts longer than the recommended 750 words and with accompanying bullet points.
Some stories warrant more than a spiel.
I’m not criticizing the conference or the talking or the rhetoric. A sound bite of justice is certainly better than a sound bite of celebrity sex scandal or scorn.
But it makes me wonder, How do we move beyond the sound bites? Beyond the rhetoric?
How do we become more than words?
In a workshop I had the privilege to sit in on, one man said of the poor, “We don’t want your pity or your expertise or even your money…we want your heart.”
It’s tough to open our hearts to new issues and causes and plights. It’s tough to open our hearts to new and unfamiliar people. People who are different than us.
So we sound bite. We distance.
We talk like heroes, but we forget to listen.
I’m probably the guiltiest.
I talk like a hero, but I forget to listen.
I love words. I love stories. I love categorizing and documenting and analyzing.
But I can become distanced from the people these words are supposed to speak on behalf of.
I once told a friend that, as a writer, I feel called to be a voice for the voiceless. Instead of the appropriate admiration I expected, he scowled and muttered, “Just make sure you’re not speaking over them. Or for people who could be speaking for themselves.”
I write grant proposals and emails and newsletters and appeals on behalf of people halfway around the world that I have never met on a weekly basis.
Sometimes I’m tempted to concoct a catch phrase, an idyllic picture of desperation to entice people to give to move to act. To break out of the status quo.
What if talking like a hero brings in more money than admitting that I don’t really know the whole story?
What does solidarity with the poor look like in fundraising and marketing?
What if we earn more money, but rob the poor of their dignity? What if we rob them of the opportunity to tell their own story, with their own voice, in their own words?
What’s more loving?
This is a real question I wrestle with.
At the organization I work for, we strive to tell a different story than the third world hopelessness that breeds first world hero complexes.
Our sound bites are filled with heroes. But the heroes are the farmers with whom we partner, not us.
We are merely stewards of time and resources and—I hope—of words.
My boss, Scott Sabin, wrote an incredible article for Conversations called, How Not to be a Hero. He said, “Jesus is the hero. We are not called to save the world, or Haiti, or Tanzania, or even a single village. That has already been done. We have a savior.”
Our words and our witness and our fundraising won’t save anyone; yet I believe we are called to JOIN in the work of redemption and restoration that God is already doing. We are called to serve and act and speak in love and solidarity, as one family.
So how do we become more than words? How do we not talk over the poor? How do we give voice to the voiceless?
The first step, I think, is listening.
Sound bites are ideas distilled. And ideas matter. The messaging matters.
But our listening should drive our messaging.
The very course of my life changed when I listened to the stories of new friends who happened to live in desperate conditions, who happened to be poor—and also happened to love Christian rap and melon shakes and Dora La Exploradora.
Today I need the reminder that before I am called to be a voice for the voiceless, I am called to be a listening ear to the voiceless. To create space for their voices—both in my heart and in the world around me.
I am called to be a steward of words.
I am reminded that first and foremost, solidarity is a posture of ears wide open. Eyes wide open. Lives wide open to the suffering of others.
How’s that for a sound bite?