Monday, March 12, 2012

Caroline, Caring, and Kony2012

Sometimes, a good funeral can be a good kick in the pants.

This past Saturday, I attended the Dallas portion of a series of memorial services being held around the world for Caroline Gross, who lived practically her entire life on the mission field, first in South America, and then in Africa.

And when you've lived the kind of live Caroline lived, having a series of funerals held in your honor simply makes sense.  After all, considering the limited economic resources of all the people who'd want to attend her funeral, it was probably cheaper to take the funerals to them, instead of making them trek all the way around the globe for one grand ceremony.

If there was one thing that didn't typify Caroline, it was grand ceremony.

A Life Lived Flat-Out for Christ

I'd only ever met her once, and she had already aged past her years even then.  More recent photographs in the PowerPoint slideshow shown before Saturday's service portrayed a short, hunched, gray-haired old woman, creases of wrinkles covering her face and arms, skin brown and splotchy from years in the African sun.  Although she was Caucasian, she looked more comfortable in colorful African dresses than Western clothes; indeed, her home was Nigeria, not the United States.

When her husband had been alive, they'd planted churches and Christian schools in Nigeria.  When he left her a widow in her 50's, she stayed in Nigeria and took care of a severely handicapped girl, eventually adopting her, and setting a selfless example of service that soon attracted other orphans to her humble doorstep.

For any good funeral, which celebrates a life devoted to Christ, you need to be able to start with good material: a life devoted to Christ.  Many of us claim the name of Christ, but few of us model the focused, intentional love epitomized by Caroline.  When she died of natural causes in Pennsylvania late last fall, Caroline was supervising two orphanage ministries in Nigeria serving 400 children, with many more kids having already graduated from the program as adults.

And these weren't just orphans abandoned by their destitute parents or victims of Africa's many wars.  These were kids who'd been blinded or crippled by polio or other birth defects, or socially ostracized because of their albinism (lack of skin pigment).  Caroline and her workers fashioned crude yet functional wheelchairs out of bicycle wheels and plastic lawn furniture.  She structured a regimen of schoolwork, chores, and Bible education, while providing three nutritious meals a day, healthcare, and even international career development opportunities for willing graduates.

She never raised funds, at least not through our conventional North American non-profit solicitation patterns.  The pioneering missionary to India, Amy Carmichael, did not believe in fundraising, trusting instead that God's ability to provide is sufficient - and she fed hundreds of kids daily with that trust, just as Caroline committed to doing.  One of Caroline's brothers is a pastor in Arizona, and this past Saturday, he recounted the time his church held a special offering for his sister's ministry in Nigeria - at his request.  When he saw the total dollar amount of the offering, her brother was proud of his congregation, and pleased they had given so much, so he happily informed Caroline of the amount.  "Praise God," he told us she exclaimed with honest elation.  "That will feed our children for two whole days!"

The Hidden Lesson of Kony2012

Speaking of fundraising, perhaps you've seen the video making its rounds on social media sites calling for the capture and trial of Joseph Kony.  Produced by the non-profit advocacy group Invisible Children, Kony2012 has enlisted the support of major entertainment and political figures from across the ideological spectrum to encourage a massive public relations effort aimed at increasing the world's awareness of Africa's children of war in general, and the capture of the warlord Kony in particular.

Within a matter of weeks, about 70 million people have either watched the Kony2012 promotional video online or signed its petition urging swift justice for Kony and his victims.  I only learned about it last week on FaceBook, but I didn't pay any attention to it until this past weekend, when the media suddenly seemed consumed by the story.  But by that time, skeptics had already joined the frenzy, asking questions about who Invisible Children is, how it spends its money, and who Joseph Kony really is.

Perhaps surprisingly, some of the skepticism was coming from countries in Africa where Kony has been operating, such as Uganda and the Republic of Congo.  Policy experts there have become alarmed that all of the vociferous publicity against Kony could work against itself to make him appear even more powerful and idolized among his followers.  Apparently, there is also some disappointment among human rights groups that have been working tirelessly for years to extricate child warriors from Africa's illegal militias.  Kony2012 is diverting attention and resources for what appears to be a flash-in-the-pan publicity stunt, instead of educating Westerners of work already in place serving the needy in war-torn Africa.

What nobody seems to be disputing, however, is the grave sociopolitical minefield much of tribal Africa is today.  Even as Kony2012 provides publicity to part of this reality, it doesn't begin to provide a comprehensive perspective, and that's not necessarily their fault.  There are both pros and cons in Invisible Children's approach, but perhaps the greatest danger appears to be us Westerners' fickle - and notoriously short - attention span.

Fortunately, what appears to be an astute and well-rounded synopsis of the crisis highlighted by Kony2012 can be found in a blog written by two American missionary doctors in Uganda.  Suffice it to say, their years of experience ministering in Africa validate the notion that a 30-minute video cannot possibly present the informed overview of this crisis many Americans think they're getting.

Which, according to doctors Scott and Jennifer Myhre in Uganda, needs to be rectified.  Packaging the story of Africa's child warriors in such a slick fashion juices Western audiences accustomed to the rush of soundbites and reflexive online donations to make themselves feel better.  It's better than nothing, of course, but that's not really saying much.  Watching this video - which I have not done (since the video itself is not the problem here) - and responding to it by posting FaceBook links and purchasing "action kits" and bracelets is a cool way of assuming you're being proactive regarding a humanitarian crisis without actually committing much of anything to the cause.

Caring for Humanity Costs More than $10

It's the same mindset, actually, which makes people like Caroline Gross such an anomaly.  And therefore, seem like such a bizarre humanitarian when we remember her life's story at a funeral.  One of several, remember.

And believe me - I'm preaching to myself here more than anybody else.  But I know I'm not the only person who needs to hear this!  I have a clean, crisp passport without anything in it.  I dislike traveling even to poor parts of town, let alone to thatched huts half a world away.  I'm as WASP as you can be without being rich like most WASPs are believed to be.  So sitting through Caroline's memorial service Saturday was both educational and convicting.

Most of us will never be called to long-term service for "the least of these" in Nigeria.  Obviously, the reason God placed you and me here in North America isn't because we're supposed to all move to Africa.  There is valid ministry to be done here in our own backyard.  Yet I wonder how many of us have been called to places like Nigeria, but we don't bother going?  Maybe not just for a short-term missions trip, but for a longer stay?  Becoming part of the community in places like Otutulu Village, Nigeria, or Banda, Republic of Congo?  Becoming a truly global citizen, comfortable and productive wherever God leads us?  Not as a tourist, but as a servant?

Overall, I think it's a good thing that Americans have been jilted out of complacency - for however short a timeframe - by the Kony2012 fuss.  But maybe God's using even these little reminders that while we indeed have problems here at home, most of us will finish a busy day of complaining about our democracy and churches, and head home to air-conditioned buildings with walls, floors, and ceilings built to code; to sleep in beds with clean sheets without any mosquito netting.  None of us worry of armed mercenaries ruthlessly attacking our gated communities during the night, hauling off our women and children for perverted servitude, slaughtering all the able-bodied men.  And then burning our split-levels down to the ground.

Caroline Gross lived several hours away from Jos, Nigeria, where such terror takes place regularly.  And against Christians specifically, not just anybody unfortunate enough to encounter a rogue militia.

Yet even as she was making her way through physical therapy in Pennsylvania last fall, fully intending to return to Africa at the ripe old age of 88, Caroline wasn't afraid.  Concerned, perhaps, as anybody with a brain would be; but not afraid.  And so in love with her adopted family - all 400 of them!

Each one called her "Mama."

Because she didn't just show she cared by purchasing a $10 bracelet online.

Note: This essay has been updated with more accurate information about the orphans and the distance to Jos.

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