My first thoughts of Africa were wrapped up in idealism, dripping with it. I had romanticized Africa as a place of simplicity, poverty, culture and beauty. Like other Americans, I imagined Africa as it belonged in the travel magazines, in the headlines of the newspapers and in the argument for why children should finish their dinners.
Perhaps, we sentimentalize places and people who are different from us until we truly know them. Or perhaps we long for them, in the way Isaiah longed for a New Jerusalem. As a 21-year-old, I co-founded Blood:Water Mission with the belief that we could eradicate HIV/AIDS and provide safe water for all. If we could simply rally enough people to care, certainly there could be enough resources in the world to make these things happen. In my naiveté I believed early on that I could be the one to usher that change.
Thomas Merton wrote a letter to a young activist and he urged him to struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. Merton’s advice reminds me of the I-Thou and I-It relationship advocated for by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. The I-Thou relationship occurs when two people see each other, simply, as people created by God in His image. There is no qualification of poor or rich or us or them. I-Thou sees the humanity and the divinity within each person. Conversely, I-It exists when a person sees the other as an object to be used to serve his or her interest. It gives a person permission to define, label and objectify the other person. To romanticize Africa is to make an “it” of the place and the people.
It was apparent, even on the plane that both James and I longed to live out the I-Thou relationship and realized our own idealism stood in the way. Perhaps not surprisingly to someone seasoned like Thomas Merton, our romanticism for the ideas and virtues of justice, healthcare, preferential options for the poor and for the hastening of a New Jerusalem would have to be shattered in order to understand the sacred I and Thou. It was easy to see someone as a brother and sister in the loving, general sense of the word.
But what would happen if the Thou you were trying to serve, lied to you, hurt you or disappointed you with corruption- or if the I that wanted to serve began to fall short in his or her false sense of capabilities or large promises – could we still believe?
Admittedly, we’re still in the midst of picking up some of those pieces of idealism and reworking them. But we continue to commit our lives to social justice in Africa and invite many others to join in the journey with us – even as we are still learning. Because we do believe that the world changes when love is lavished upon others. We hold fast to the hope that someday all things will be renewed. Just as we know ourselves as recipients of God’s great grace, we pray the same for the injustices we see.