14 April 2012

Experiencing Poverty at Crossroads Foundation

Davis Polk Law Firm (and friends)
The Crossroads Foundation is a Hong Kong based non-profit organization that brings together needs and resources. Their core belief is that, "in a broken world that sees too much suffering, we should do all we can to link those who are in need with those who can provide help."

Not only does Crossroads connect those in need with those who want to give, they also seek to help those who are giving to understand those in need. I can listen to all the lectures and forums in the world about poverty, watch videos and view photos, even go to a place where it is all around me, but I will not truly know what it is because I have not lived it.

Poverty is at the root of the work at the Mission. Why do the women who are here as domestic helpers come in the first place? What drives them to leave behind family and friends and everything they've ever known to come to a place that views them as second class citizens? Poverty. Economic disparity in their home countries. They cannot provide for their families and so they have to go where they can. They sign contracts and sell family land and even if they KNOW they are being cheated, they have to endure it so that they can provide for their families.

Simulated Refugee Camp
I have seen extreme poverty before. I went to Haiti with a group from my church and a church from Alabama for a week in 2010, and in that week I saw things that broke my heart to pieces. I saw slums and tent cities and sanitation issues and all of the things that go along with extreme poverty. I saw it. I experienced it a little bit. But I did not live it.

Today I went with a group of 25 people from a law firm here in Hong Kong (my friend Alex works there) to the Crossroads Foundation's site out in Tuen Mun. Crossroads holds simulations of the situations they hope to alleviate, called Global X-perience. They invite people to come and experience life in slum conditions, how the 3 billion people in the world who live on less than two dollars a day live.

Briefing for the simulation
Our group was divided into families of four or five and told that in order for us to survive and provide for our family, we must create and sell paper bags. In some of the markets around the world you will see market vendors putting their wares in these paper bags for people to take their purchases home in. These bags are made by people who sell them to provide for their families. We were given a pot of a flour-and-water mixture (our glue) and some newspapers. We had three sets of ten minutes to make paper bags (each ten minute interval representing one week). Once we had made ten paper bags, someone had to go to one of the "shops" (manned by Crossroads volunteers) to try and sell them. We had to make and sell enough paper bags to pay for food ($100) and rent ($180)--the most basic needs. We also had the option of sending one member of the family to school, but that was $500. How much is the going rate for a set of 10 paper bags? Depends on the benevolence of the shopkeepers...

My family did pretty good the first round. We almost had enough for both--I had to give up my watch to make up the difference. Didn't matter though--my family survived! However, we were so focused on making the paper bags that we did not hear the announcement that the local charity organization was holding a health  class. There was a measles outbreak and two members of the family had to sit out for two minutes of the next round... The rest of us were furiously ripping paper and slapping glue to the pages, trying to make up for the lack of hands. We paid closer attention to the announcements this time and one of our group members went to a skills training session. She was given money to buy a sewing machine but we had to use it to pay rent...

We managed to pay rent and food for the second round, but we had not been buying "toilet time." In many parts of the world there are pay only toilets. $30 to use it for the week, but many opted not to in order to be able to pay for food and rent. As a result, four people in our group had to stand for a minute because they had diarrhea, leaving me to rip, fold, and glue by myself. By the third round we were running out of paper, so we had to scramble and get money to get more resources to make the bags. Luckily a loan shark came around, and for just two hugs from each of the women we got $100 each. We were able to send someone to school and just barely pay for rent and food.

We did some debriefing after the experience.. here are some of the thoughts I had:

1. We were so focused on making the bags (bags = survival) that we did not notice anything else going on around us. We did not think about the environment, we did not think about the other families around us, we did not think about the aid organizations set up in the next room. Our singular focus was to make and sell bags, and if we could spare someone we sent them to a skills training and to school. But doing so meant we had less hands to make bags, so we took a hit and had to make up the difference with "hugs"... I'm sure you can guess what the "hugs" were representative of.

2. When one of the other families couldn't pay their rent and had to move out into the "under the bridge" community, I was glad because it meant less competition for us for selling bags. Harsh... Where was my compassion? Where was my empathy?

3. I was completely unaware of the services offered by the aid organizations unless they came to our "house" (blue and white tarp on the floor) and talked to us while we worked. The leader of our event told a story about a woman he met in India. She was telling him about the cycle of poverty she and her family are stuck in--she was born and opened up her eyes and saw that she was poor. She grew up poor. When she got older she married a poor man. They had children, and when those children were born they opened their eyes and saw that they are poor. She watched her children grow up poor, marry poor, and their children born into poverty. She could see on into the generations and all she could see was poverty. It is like there is a glass ceiling above their heads that they cannot break through. She sees the people born above the ceiling and wonders why---their children are born and open up their eyes and they are not poor. Are they any better people? Are they more hard working? No. They are just born into it. How can they break through the glass ceiling? My thought is that the only way to break through is if the people above are also breaking down the glass ceiling and reaching down to lift them up. It is great to give money or have a charity organization offering service, but unless they are going out into the slums and directly to the people they aren't going to have much of an impact; empower the people rather than give a handout.

4. We had to make decisions about whether or not someone was going to stop working to go to school or the skills training. We made decisions about whether or not to buy toilet time or risk health issues to have food and shelter. We groveled to the shopkeepers to give us money for our families, we surrendered our dignity so that our families could survive.

5. Our experience lasted, in total, about an hour. At the end of that hour, we stopped, cleaned up the wads of paper and glue, and sat down in the cool air conditioned room. The people who live like this 24/7 do not get to stop. Nobody tells them "Okay time is up!"... I experienced this for an hour--they experience it for a lifetime.

After the experiential part, we had a lunch of rice, daal, and a vegetable called sukuma wiki.. literally it means "push the week". In Kenya, the workers are paid on Saturday, so around Wednesday or so of the following week the money is running out and you still have to eat. Sukuma wiki is usually a leafy green like kale or collards, something filling that will help you stretch your budget until payday comes again. The food was delicious (made even more so by eating it with our fingers--traditional utensils in Southeast Asia), and we had drinks from plastic baggies.

We took a short break to browse around the fair trade shop (the only one in Hong Kong) and the little cafe on site. None of the staff there are paid--it is run entirely by volunteers. An amazing organization! Also on site since it was a Saturday was the Hong Kong Farmer's Market and several of our group bought vegetables to take home.

Volunteer Sign-Up
The afternoon portion broke us up into groups to do service projects. Initially I wanted to help making health kits, but by the time I got to the sign up lady the slots were full. I was then going to work in the office doing paperwork, but then a woman had brought her 12 year old son and they wanted to stay together, so I went with the computer group. In retrospect, I think maybe Someone was looking out for me...

Our on site volunteer was named Dan and he led us to a small warehouse on the property where all of the donated electronics are stored, sorted, refurbished, and sent out. We helped go through a pile of desktop towers, determining if they were usable and if not, extracting the parts that were. It was interesting to go through the inside of a computer (not something I have done in a long time) and eventually the four of us got into a rhythm and the work was knocked out in no time. Dan came back and said we were done, and we ended up chatting with him for a bit.

Turns out, he is originally from the Philippines, from Mindanao. He told us how he had ended up at Crossroads ostensibly for just a year but it turned into almost three and a half. On Friday I had given a seminar on Microsoft Excel to my beloved co-workers at the Mission (so that we can use the new database I created) but I felt my inadequate Tagalog skills were a barrier in really helping them achieve confidence in using Microsoft Office. Monday I am supposed to give a similar workshop on Word, but I have been feeling a bit apprehensive about it. I asked Dan if he ever did any training on it, he said no but that he could. I was FILLED with joy and gratitude! We exchanged information and I'll be getting in touch with him tomorrow to get things set up.

Me & Alex
It was an incredible, humbling day. I am so grateful for the life I have lived and I pray that the world can become more reconciled through work like what is being done at the Crossroads Foundation. I am reminded of the Parable of the Rich and the Kingdom of God (found here, here, and here). Sell everything, give to the poor, and follow me, Jesus advises. This is what is required to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But like we've talked about before, the Kingdom of Heaven is among us. To enter into it, we must engage in the reconciling and healing work of God. Poverty has been around for a long time--Jesus was talking about it in 33AD and we're still talking about it today. Have we heeded Jesus' advice to heal the suffering of our brothers and sisters? What have we given? Are we really following Jesus if we see poverty around us and do not act?

Grace and Peace,

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