I've enjoyed reading several stories recently about the good work that the UMC is doing in Western and Southern Africa in the realms of education and healthcare, but these stories have me thinking about the dangers for American Christians of such stories. They can reinforce a distinction Americans make between themselves as people who have money and therefore access to education, healthcare, and other resources and services and "those poor other people" elsewhere that don't have such things. At best, this view leads into a reflection on one's own privilege that leads to sacrificial service. At worst, though, this distinction becomes entwined with racial stereotypes and a host of colonial assumptions that perpetuate such distinctions and inequalities.
To move past such a dangerous distinction, I think American United Methodists need to carefully balance three realizations:
1. Everyone in the world has problems.
Africa has problems with access to healthcare and education, but the United States has problems too. Certainly there is poverty in parts of the US, which can also involve lack of access to healthcare and education, but even in affluent areas of the US, there are problems such as mental illness, substance addiction, dysfunctional families, and alienation from God. None of us yet live in the fully realized kingdom of God.
2. Comparative suffering is usually an unhelpful exercise.
There is a danger both in seeing others' problems as worse than our own and in seeing our own problems as just as bad as others'. If we see others' problems as worse, this may motivate us to compassion, which is good, but it may also tinge that compassion with pity and condescension, which is bad. If we see our own problems as just as bad as others, it may make us less empathetic or concerned with others' problems. Compassion for ourselves and for others should be the goal (Mark 12:31), but that doesn't depend on determining whose problems are worse.
3. We are called to help each other with (but not necessarily solve) each other's problems.
You've probably heard someone say something along the lines of the following: "Why is that church group going abroad? There are poor/hungry/needy people right here in our own country!" Not only do such statements fail to recognize that those who go are in some ways needy, they set geographic or national limits to our compassion. Our compassion should have no limits. Yet if/when we go abroad to help others, we must not think that we are there to solve others' problems. Others will continue to have problems, despite our help. Moreover, if we see ourselves as the solvers, we will see the others only as their problems. We need to be honest about our problems so that we will be open to help from others, affording them the opportunity to give as well as to receive.
Thus, we should seek to mutually show love to each other in the midst of our problems. We will not entirely solve each others' problems, but showing love to each other and, just as importantly, receiving love from each other elevates us from the problems of this world and gives us a foretaste of the kingdom of God. That kingdom is not yet fully here, but when we love, we bring it closer.