Syrian Refugees and the Heart of American Christians

Women and children among Syrian refugees at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station

I’m concerned, and frankly ashamed, by what the Syrian refugee crisis is revealing about the heart of American Christians.

Let me start by saying that I have a lot of Facebook friends with different political and religious affiliations, so I’m used to seeing disagreement on issues. When it comes to dealing with poverty, for example, my left leaning friends think the primary solution is for the government to provide food, money, and other benefits to people in need. My right leaning friends tend to prefer focusing on ensuring that there are economic opportunities so people can help themselves, and relying more on private charity than government support. When you ignore the silly memes, and cut through all the posturing and bloviating, both sides want to help. We just disagree on the best strategy. That kind of debate doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, I think it’s a good thing.
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Taking Care of Our Own

Brad in a crowd of children in India.

Over the past few months, there has been a post making its way around Facebook decrying how much money we invest in other countries when we have so much need here at home. These posts always seem to get supportive replies of agreement. This breaks my heart and, frankly, makes me angry. I haven’t replied or posted about this issue directly, as I’m afraid it would come off as a personal attack on those who re-post that comment, and that’s not my intent. The closest I’ve come to addressing this is posting verses about poverty, like Jeremiah 22:16.

Let me share a bit of background, so you can understand my perspective. Poverty is more than a concept to me. I have traveled overseas to third world countries and have seen real poverty firsthand. Contrary to the stereotype, I have found many of these people to be the most giving, hardworking, people with a strong faith in God that I have rarely, if ever, encountered elsewhere.

To me, poverty is the boy I met in the Guatemala City Dump with a scar on his face from a drunk father who used a broken bottle to punish him for not bringing home enough money one day. It is the boy from the indigenous tribe in India who’s legs were swollen to the point he could barely walk because he was sick and had no access to medical care. It is the “untouchables” I encountered in India who are rejected by society simply because of the caste they were born into. It is the residents I met at leper colonies in the Philippines. It is all these faces and many more.

I used to volunteer with Compassion International. (I eventually had to stop do to my schedule, but it is a solid organization that still I wholeheartedly support.) My primary responsibility was to communicate about poverty in an attempt to find more sponsors for kids in need. I would speak about poverty and Compassion’s work, and work the sponsorship table at other concerts and events.

It wasn’t uncommon for people to tell me that they thought we needed to invest in US needs first. At first, I believed them, but over time my view changed. At the time, Compassion also worked in the US. Not a single person who raised the “USA Needs First” objection ever wanted to hear about Compassion’s US work. Not one. On the occasions when I had the opportunity to ask someone with  “USA Needs First” objections what they were doing to help the poor in the US, no one had an answer. Not one.

Don’t misunderstand me. During that time I met a lot of people who were busy doing their part to help the poor here at home. I can think of numerous conversations I had with people who couldn’t personally get involved with Compassion’s overseas work because they felt called to put their time and treasure into ministries at home. And I don’t have any objection to that at all. However, I never encountered one of them who objected to helping the poor overseas. Not one. Ever. Without exception, the people I encountered who had a heart for the poor at home celebrated helping the poor everywhere.

So, over time, I came to realize that the “USA Needs First” argument wasn’t really an objection at all. It was an excuse to continue doing nothing for the poor. That is why I find that Facebook post so objectionable. Given my experience, I can’t help but have a visceral reaction to what feels like a callous disregard for those in need. When I see people posting supportive replies, to this nonsense, I can’t help but see it as a celebration of the self-centeredness that is so common here in our American culture.

Perhaps the people sharing this Facebook post are referring to government spending. Even if that is the case, the post strikes me as nonsensical at best, callous at worst. I don’t want to delve into politics or the appropriate role of government here. However, let’s take a quick look at the numbers. Last year, between the federal and state governments,  we spent over $727 billion dollars on welfare programs and over a trillion on health care. (Obviously not all of that goes toward the poor. We’d have to drill down into more detail on these numbers for a truly accurate discussion, but this should be sufficient for my point.) It is estimated that we have about 36 million people living below the poverty line here in the US. If the government were capable of funding the end of poverty, then wouldn’t that be enough? If we are spending that much internally, can’t we justify also helping those outside our borders?

Is it fair for me to generalize my experience onto everyone who makes this “US Needs First” argument? No. Am I qualified to judge the hearts of the  people copying this silly Facebook post? No, of course not. However, whether or not it is fair or accurate, it is how I feel.

So, what do you think? Am I off-base? If you or someone you know objects to helping those overseas and is actually involved in helping the poor here at home, I’d love to hear from you, too. Maybe these people really do exist. In any case, please leave a comment with your thoughts.