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The Chicken and the Egg

I have always suspected it is a chicken and egg phenomenon. What comes first? Personal transformation leads to the desire, or need even, to transform something in the world. Or do our efforts to change something that is unjust, something that causes suffering in the world lead to a personal and spiritual transformation? I know my own story and I know it is not unique. I have asked many people this question over the years and I have received a variety of responses. None of them surprise me anymore.

My wife and I recently had the opportunity to share a meal with some good friends and their invited guests. The guests, who we had never met, had a fascinating story about their lives. I will only touch on some of the facts I learned this evening. They are both very private people and I have not asked for their permission to share more.

Both professionals, they had reached a time in their lives when most people would be planning their retirement years. They were both drawn to a life of service as part of their faith journey but I suspect it may have been part of their DNA as well. In 2007 they went on a mission trip to Tanzania to help work on a new school building. It was on this trip that they learned of the terrible predicament many of the young, orphaned children have in a country where so many children are left without parents because of poor living conditions and disease. Both tuberculosis and AIDs are rampant in this poor country.

They also learned that many of the faith related non-profits will typically come to the country with good intentions, build a facility, but will not provide the means to operate the school. The results are often empty, deteriorating school buildings with no teachers or students, leaving no way for children, particularly orphaned children, to get an education. This is virtually a life sentence of miserable poverty and an early death for these precious children.

After some soul searching and some head scratching, this determined couple along with a few other motivated friends decided to do something. They started a new non-profit but with a business plan that would cater to orphans. In a little over seven years, a lot of hard work, they now have three schools in operation with over 700 students. When another school is completed their combined enrollment will be over 1000 students every year. Yes, you can say this is a story of transformation of a village, or even a country. But my new friends will tell you they are the ones who were transformed.

As I listened to their story I was reminded of the year and a half I spent working at a community center in Potrero Hill, CA. This was a mixed neighborhood with lovely homes, usually remodeled homes built in the early 1900s and one of the largest public housing projects in California. I was in seminary at the time and part of a program to immerse a few students in some of the more difficult social settings. I was happy when I got my placement on Potrero Hill even though it was considered one of the most challenging. The community center primarily served the underprivileged who lived in the housing projects but often sponsored community events for the entire community.

My primary responsibility was to work with a group of young black students in their early teens. I was to mentor them, teach them some working skills, and tutor when possible. But my main job was to try and keep them in school. I was the only white person on a staff of twenty four, with the exception of the office administrator. My boss was black and his boss was black and a well-known activist in the Bay area. She had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma.

I have written about this amazing experience several times in the past so I won’t belabor the point. In short I thought I was going to take my leadership and management skills to these impoverished people and help them. Yes I am embarrassed to say in the beginning I saw myself as a “white knight” coming to save the children. Early on I thought I might transform the center into something more efficient and productive. However, very quickly I became the student, and my students, the other staff members, and my bosses became the teachers. I was not the one who was going to transform. I was transformed by the experience and have never been the same.

Over the years I have come to understand this whole idea of spiritual transformation as a spiral of awareness. I am purposely using the word spiral here rather than an event or even a ladder. Most of us will have times in our lives when we suddenly become aware of something we call injustice. We may not be certain what justice is, but we surely recognize injustice when we come across it. This does not always mean we attempt to do something about it, but at least we are now aware.

This awareness may start primarily as a head thing. We now see something is not right, not fair and people, animals or the environment suffer because of it. We can weigh the facts in these situations and eventually we may decide to take some action. As we begin to work toward righting this injustice, we are drawn closer to those who are suffering. Somewhere along the way our awareness of the injustice takes on another dimension. We are now more familiar with those who suffer. They become real people who suffer and we feel a connection. This is no longer a matter of principle. These become people, children or animals who we now care about. We move from head to heart. Our capacity for compassion grows and as it grows so do we. We are no longer trying to help them as objects but rather helping someone in our family. This is no longer a head thing.

This is why the young boys I tutored became “my boys.” I loved them beyond understanding. And this is why my new friends referred to the children in the schools they helped build as “my children.”

But it does not end there. As we grow closer to those who suffer and make attempts to relieve their suffering we are drawn closer to those who we are trying to help. Differences between us begin to dissolve and we now become more sensitive to others who suffer, who are trapped in some downward spiral. Our hearts grow, our capacity for compassion is expanded. We may even begin to experience a sense of Oneness with them that cannot be explained. And finally at some point our Oneness is expanded to others, even those who may have created or sustained the injustice.

I do believe this phenomenon was part of Jesus’ teachings. It is the reason he taught his followers to go outside their boundaries that were so clearly drawn in his days. Yes there was a vision of a new world guided by God’s love or radical egalitarianism. Jesus may have referred to this as the Kingdom of God. But the path to the Kingdom or Commonwealth was through service. One situation at a time.

So what comes first, the transformation of society or transformation of ourselves? It seems like a chicken and egg thing to me.

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