Everyday in Senegal is an absolute blessing. Sometimes, I am just walking in the streets of Yoff or just enjoying a meal, and I think, “Wow, I am in Senegal.” I do not take this opportunity for granted. It is a rare chance to experience the world and grow as a person inexplicably. As a result, however, sometimes I can put too much pressure on myself to ensure that I am making the most of every moment, to perform what I think should be done on Bridge Year, rather than just letting it happen. There have been many times where I have found myself serving more because I want to fulfill the mission of Bridge Year, rather than because I desire to do so. I was never able to articulate this feeling of doing something out of obligation, rather than want, until recently.
Today, I was reading Matthew 9, titled “The calling of Matthew” and it resonated with exactly what I have been feeling. I won’t get into the details of the chapter, but essentially there are these pious religious people accusing Jesus of spending time with “sinners.” In response, Jesus says one thing that spoke to me. He says, “‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
I read it a couple of times and couldn’t fully grasp it, so I took to Google and found an article that spoke to me even more. It discusses how mercy is not pity, as one might think. To be merciful is to have compassion. But to have mercy for someone, you have to understand where they are coming from.
It says, “Jesus never responded to people with that attitude [of pity]… he placed himself in a position—as he did in Matthew’s house—of reaching across the table, of treating each person with respect and dignity.”
One of the key points here for me was that to have mercy; one must have relationship.
“Jesus longs for us to move beyond the idea of sacrifice—what we feel obligated to give up to be perceived as religious. He wants us to get our hearts involved, tangled up with other people’s lives, so the word sacrifice drops out of our vocabulary so that all we know is the passion to love others as he loves us.”
In the same way, the pious religious people at the time could not have imagined having meaningful relationship with “sinners,” I feel, as Westerners when we go on service projects or missions, we come to “serve” and only give. We sacrifice, without even beginning to understand someone’s circumstance. We tell people what they need and “sacrifice” it for them, without even asking them if it was something that they wanted.
This is not to say that we don’t need to sacrifice, but if our sacrifices are coming from a place of needing to relieve guilt or from a position of superiority or for whatever reason, then they become tainted by our intentions. If we instead had mercy and compassion for others, learned the experiences of others, then we could meaningfully sacrifice from a place of love and reciprocity.
What if we as a society, regardless of religious belief, learned to go about fixing our world’s problems via relationship, rather than the legalistic methods of finding a “central problem” and “fixing” it. What if we saw the world’s issues as something interconnected, as a result of complex human beings just like ourselves, rather than problems to fix.
I believe that what our society lacks is an ability to truly understand because (1) we don’t know how to listen because we have been conditioned to produce answers, and (2) we don’t allow for authentic relationships because we are afraid of the vulnerability that it requires. I believe that intersection of admitting we don’t know and having the vulnerability to say we don’t know is the foundation for creating long-term, sustainable solutions to all of the issues we face today. As long as we continue to make assumptions about the “other”, as long as we hold anger and bitterness, as long as we pretend and wear facades, the longer we will perpetuate hurt and suffering. Vulnerability is not easy but I believe it is the cornerstone of healing.
Until we learn to listen, to develop relationship, to be vulnerable, we will keep hurting ourselves, each other, and the planet, and ultimately perpetuating oppressive systems of inequality.
So I ask: What if instead of always jumping to “sacrifice” for each other, we first had mercy for one other?
Rather than feeling obligated to serve, I have developed relationships with the people around me that make me want to help. I do not serve because I know I can fix all of their problems or offer an immense amount of aid, but I do so simply because I am invested in their lives. I know what I offer is little. In fact, it adds up to nothing compared to what people have given to me here but giving is about reciprocity, and its foundation is in love. I give what I can, and that is all I can do. And when I return home, I will remember these relationships. When I am working on social activism, and people refer to Africa and the third world, I will remember my family. When I am writing policy or doing whatever God has planned for me, I will recognize that the decisions we make have significant impacts on people we may never meet but they are human beings and they deserve love and freedom, just like anyone.