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Building Bridges: Finding hope in a dishrack

A latrine in Zambia, constructed by World Vision. Photo: ©2011 Collins Kaumba/World Vision

A latrine in Zambia, constructed by World Vision.
Photo: ©2011 Collins Kaumba/World Vision

“What do you mean, a dish rack?”

The question came from one of the travelers on my trip to Zambia this month.  We had just met Oswald, a boy who may be alive today because of a mobile health (mHealth) project that was underwritten by the Innovation Fund last year.  This cellphone-based program allowed a volunteer community caregiver to assess that Oswald had a dangerous case of malaria, which convinced his mother to walk the four hours needed to get him to the nearest clinic.  Because he’d been prescreened, he received priority treatment, and when we met him, he was fully recovered …and he wants to be a doctor!

Now Oswald’s mother was explaining that Betsy the caregiver also helps her family live a healthier life, so they don’t get sick as often.  Case in point: the dish rack.

Our eyes danced around the ground looking for a rubber-coated wire strainer, like the one that fits neatly inside half our kitchen sink. The Zambian mother pointed instead to something that resembled the frame of a small shed, with bare branches creating a flat if uneven roof.  Atop this contraption were a few pots and pans and plates–about what we’d stack neatly into one kitchen cabinet–spread out and all turned upside down.

“Now we use a latrine, but before Betsy, we’d defecate in the bush. The dogs and pigs would eat the waste, and then they’d come home and eat from the plates. So now we keep our plates and cooking pots off the ground and away from the animals.”

Please excuse the shock of that story, but this one small part of an otherwise very encouraging conversation became very dis-couraging to me.  Since returning from Zambia, I’ve been hounded with recurring melancholy this past week, which happens occasionally.  I don’t know how much of it is frustration from watching myself chase again all the things I think I ‘require’ for a happy life, the depth of poverty in the people we met, unrealistic expectations of how far World Vision’s efforts will carry them, the gnarl of underlying issues, or simply the huge gap between how I live and they live.  The feelings aren’t completely new to me; in one form or another, it’s an occupational hazard.  But the upshot is that, after a truly wonderful trip, my re-entry has been surprisingly unsettling.

I saw my pastor midweek, and he’d just come back from a diocesan conference on global food insecurity, where one speaker had warned that anyone who gets involved in these issues will at times be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the problem, which the speaker said is the predictable side effect of any vision worth pursuing.  That was a comfort. But comforts only seem to last me a few hours, then the gas seems to leak out of my tank again.  Janet equates it to grieving, and she’s probably spot-on.  And when she pointed that out, I immediately thought of the story above, of how Oswald and his widowed mother are living, with a mentally challenged sister besides. I was grieving for their reality, improved though it is.

We run the good race when we pursue “any vision worth pursuing”, but there are times when the magnitude of the gap can feel overwhelming. I’m not disgusted with myself (this time at least) so much as I’m simply sad at the huge chasm between our worlds, feeling almost hopeless that it will ever be bridged.

Yet, I think my typing fingers may have just shown me a path forward: You see, a bridge doesn’t make things “the same”, it spans two different things and allows connections between them, a flow of people and goods and assistance in times of need.  I’ve seen bridges that allow women in birthing distress to get life-saving care, and bridges that allow poor farmers to suddenly have buyers and produce the income to support their families.

And my work is also to be a bridge.  My personal mission statement is “Connecting the wealthy and the poor to build a better world and to transform both.” Andrew Natsios, a former World Vision Sr. VP who left to become the head of USAID under President Bush said it even better in his confirmation hearing: “Putting the hand of the at-risk poor into the hand of the ‘at-risk’ rich so that BOTH will be blessed.”

If we can connect, much good can happen.  If we can continually widen the connections, more help can flow–to both sides.  Yes, some people will always be poor-er economically, but they needn’t be condemned to suffer forever from maladies we long ago solved.  Bridges also mean a flow both ways, which allows opportunity and options and ways to get to know one another.  Ways which hopefully, with God’s grace, as more and more connections are made, can turn strangers into friends, where they learn from each other and benefit from the gifts and skills the other brings.

OK, the bridge is very long.  The distance seemed particularly daunting this past week.  But I can work on a bridge.  Work has already been done, for many lifetimes.  My work won’t complete the bridge, nor add all the expansions it will one day hopefully need.

But I can put my shoulder to it, drop my welder’s mask down and start back to work.  Just staring off at the horizon won’t build the bridge.  Jesus’ kingdom vision calls me to be a bridge constructor.  Yet, I am only a workman, not the Master Builder.  That’s where faith and trust come in.  It’s his vision, not mine.

And if the vision isn’t overwhelming, I guess it probably wouldn’t be worth pursuing.

Cory Trenda is the Senior Director of Innovation for World Vision U.S. Major Donor Ministries.

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