Conversatio Divina

Part 5 of 16

How Not to Be a Hero

Scott C. Sabin

It was sometime after 1:00 a.m.

I slouched in a plastic chair in a dusty wing of the Nairobi airport. Boarding was in two hours, and after that I had almost two days of travel to get home. Despite having a good trip in which I had accomplished all I had wanted, I was feeling unnaturally discouraged. In the sparse bookstore I had bought a popular book, which cynically recounted all the damage caused in Africa by bad foreign aid and misplaced good intentions. It was hitting me right at my place of vulnerability. A ten-day visit to Tanzania to help set up a new country program for Plant With Purpose (formerly Floresta) was drawing to a close. In this busy and cosmopolitan crossroads of Africa, my efforts seemed particularly puny. I had no business thinking I could fix the problems of deforestation and poverty in even one of the small villages we had visited, let alone all of Tanzania. It was beyond quixotic. I felt miserable. Lord, I thought, why did you let me get so far ahead of you? Why am I here? I thought I was doing what you wanted. I heard no answer.

01.  Divine Appointments

Fifteen years earlier, God had first captured my attention with a borrowed sermon tape. I had grown up attending a Presbyterian church that tended toward the evangelical end of the spectrum, but as I listened to the tape, I realized I had never heard anything like what Tony Campolo was saying. He was contrasting earthly power with sacrificial love and calling his listeners to serve the poor. In an emotional crescendo, he rhetorically asked why anyone would want to work for IBM when he could be a hero. A hero! That appealed to my romantic idea of how life should be. I wanted to be a hero. Although, as I thought about it, I had little idea of what practical form that might take.

The following year, needing to fulfill the foreign language requirements for a graduate program in international relations, I spent a summer in language school in Guatemala. I arrived in Guatemala with a wide-open schedule and no agenda other than learning Spanish. But God took that time and my agenda and molded it to his use in a way I had never experienced before and have rarely experienced since. Almost as if it were scripted, I was connecting with a different missionary, pastor, or development worker every weekend.

The weekday setting was idyllic. I would walk to class along cobblestone streets beneath a magnificent green-sided volcano. Mornings would be spent talking with an instructor over coffee, while afternoons were spent with other students, trying to understand Guatemalan culture and grappling with the local poverty and injustice.

These two things were impossible to ignore. The long civil war that had devastated the nation, particularly the highlands, was winding down, although not completely over. Parts of the country were still contested; memories of massacres and lost loved ones were fresh in the minds of people with whom I talked. Also, although I had seen poverty before, it had never been this close. In much of the United States, we do a very effective job of hiding misery and need from immediate sight, shielding our consciences. Here the cry of the needy and oppressed was very much in front of me. While walking to and from dinner with friends, it was hard to avoid the indigenous women with their little children in ragged traditional huipiles.

One evening after giving a couple of coins to a particularly winsome and pathetic little girl in the street, a friend of mine was overcome with frustration and hurt. “What can we do?” she asked. “We can’t help them all.”

It was good question, and I had a hard time coming up with good answers. Finally, I said, “I think all we can do is take the pain we feel on their behalf and all the energy it creates and pour it into those things we can do. We can’t help them all, but we need to make sure that we help those whom we can.”

On weekends, I found that one divine appointment led to another. I tend to be skeptical of overly spiritual interpretations of events, but this was so obvious that people around me noticed it. It was an exhilarating feeling, knowing I was in God’s hands, seeing what he wanted me to see and learning what he wanted me to learn.

One memorable weekend I visited the Guatemala City dump. Few other places I have ever seen can conjure up so quickly the idea of hell on earth. Hundreds of vultures circled a plume of acrid smoke, which billowed from behind a block wall. I was unprepared for what I would see on the far side.

Amid heaps of rotting garbage, cardboard, and burning plastic, young children sorted through the piles and greeted each truck as it arrived. I was stunned to learn that they and their families lived in this dump, fighting over the privilege of picking through the scraps.

But my sense of horror was quickly transformed to one of wonder as I visited a school founded by a young American woman who had seen this hell and taken the responsibility to do something about it. She had gone so far as to live among the families in the dump, and though she was a couple of years younger than I was, she had already given five years to this place, winning small victories at the very gates of hell. Here was a hero.

Next, I was introduced to a Guatemalan pastor, Salomón Hernández, from the highlands of El Quiché, where the civil war had been most brutal. He told me about his ministry to the indigenous people, especially the victims of the war, and I learned of his dream to open a clinic in his town.

My curiosity piqued, I angled for an invitation to travel to El Quiché to see his work firsthand, even though I was a little anxious at crossing the country by myself with my still-limited Spanish. After spending half a day on the bus, I wandered near the market in Coban, looking for the next bus. At this point I was getting so used to divine appointments that I wasn’t particularly surprised when an open truck with a dozen locals in back pulled alongside me, and the driver said, “Get in.” I just had a sense that God was guiding me by the hand, saying, “Watch and listen; I have something to show you.”

I joined farmers, market women, chickens, and produce as together we rattled over a dirt road into the hills. The young woman sitting upwind of me began to vomit. When the afternoon downpour started, we pulled a tarp over us and huddled together. A couple of miles before our destination, the truck came to a stop, broken down. We began walking as a group. At dusk, I finally arrived on Salomón Hernández’s doorstep.

The next morning we banged over the dirt roads in his rusty pickup as he took me to meet his extended church, people devastated by violence and oppression. We drove from farm to farm, visiting widows and children in tiny dirt-floored homes, listening to stories of rape and murder. Yet there was a sense of healing; they had found it in their hearts to forgive.

In the course of the day, Salomón told me of having guerrillas on one side of his house and the army on the other, while he and his wife prayed with the combatants and brought them tortillas.

We laughed together as we drove along the rutted roads, classical music playing on the cassette deck. What could have been grim was made beautiful by his buoyant spirit. Salomón’s joyous outlook in the face of so much pain and brutality gave evidence of a depth of faith and courage new to me. Furthermore, his compassion was as abundant as his joy.

With Salomón I could begin to imagine the triumph of love over hatred, of the victory of the kingdom of God over the power of darkness. Here was another hero.

There were others. In fact, this unseen, unheralded army of extraordinary individuals, giving of themselves, overwhelmed me. Here were people “spending” themselves on behalf of the hungry, just as Isaiah 58:10 describes. There were heroes everywhere.

By the time I was ready to come home, my outlook on the world had changed. The idea of the Christian walk as an adventure seemed to have meaning for the first time. Furthermore, the complacent faith I had come to regard as normal in Southern California was no longer enough. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” resonated more deeply and more urgently when I thought of the children in the dump, but also with more hope when I thought of people like Salomón—heroes courageously shining light into dark corners. And it seemed as though they would win—that justice was right around the corner.

I returned to San Diego to finish school, but abandoned plans to work in government. Instead, I wanted to work alongside people like those I had met in Guatemala. With that in mind, I began volunteering at Plant With Purpose, a Christian nonprofit agency working in impoverished areas of the Dominican Republic.

02.  Changing Perspectives

Thus, fourteen years later, now the director of Plant With Purpose, I found myself in the Nairobi airport, wracked with doubt. It wasn’t the first time I had felt that way.

I remember having a similar feeling when we first explored the possibility of working in Mexico. I was traveling with our Dominican director, Eldon Garcia, and as our plane circled the airport in Mexico City, he looked out the window and said, “That city is three times the size of my country.” I suddenly realized how overmatched we were.

Again, as we drove through Port au Prince, Haiti, following the earthquake of January 2010, the futility hit me. The extent of the devastation there is so much bigger than people imagine. As I heard reports in the media of the billions of dollars going to help and the numerous agencies that responded, it was easy mentally to equate the response to the disaster. Until I actually saw the rubble-filled streets, it was easy to overestimate our capacity to fix things and underestimate the sheer size of the area impacted. In truth, the devastation is several orders of magnitude larger than any response the entire world, let alone any individual or individual agency, has brought to Haiti to this point.

When we do realize the size of the problem, the natural tendency is to give up. People have told me that when they hear statistics about environmental degradation or poverty, their eyes glaze over. Any little thing they have to offer or any initiative they might take is crushed by the immensity of the problem.

Reading about the Israelites in the wilderness, I used to marvel at their lack of faith. They had experienced the parting of the Red Sea, pillars of fire leading them, and manna in the desert. They had been to Mount Sinai—and still they wanted to give up. They repeatedly asked why God had brought them this far only abandon them. Today I realize that this is my story too. I have seen God work in mighty ways. I have experienced miracles. Yet I forget so quickly. Instead, I lurch from believing I am the hero to feeling inadequate. But as I prayed on that long flight home from Tanzania, I realized what was wrong.

We are not called to be heroes. We aren’t.

Jesus is the hero. We are not called to save the world, or Haiti, or Tanzania, or even a single village. That has already been done. We have a savior.

03.  Playing God

Bryant Myers, in his book Walking With the Poor, astutely identifies the temptation to which we often succumb in wanting to play God in the lives of the poor. It seems harmless, but wanting to play God—wanting to be like God—is, after all, the original sin, and the consequences are dire.

Moses struggled with the same thing, at first feeling he had nothing to offer. Then, at the critical moment at Meribah, he tried to be the hero, personally taking credit for bringing water from the rock. It cost him his arrival in the Promised Land.

When we try to be the hero, we ask people to place their hope in us and not in Christ. We offer a false hope and a counterfeit gospel. False hope can kill. We are not called to be heroes.

But we are called to serve the poor, and we are called to be stewards of creation. In Matthew 10:42, Jesus says that if you give even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones, you will not lose your reward. Perhaps it is significant that he chooses an action this simple. It is something we all can do. It doesn’t require a hero.

Our role is more akin to that of the little boy in John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus asks the disciples to find food for the crowd, knowing that they can’t do it without relying on him. Andrew finds a boy with five loaves and two fish. I like to imagine what the boy might have been thinking. Perhaps he wanted to keep his dinner for himself. He had planned ahead. It would be sad for the others, but he wouldn’t go hungry, and after all, his pittance wouldn’t make much of an impact.

Or maybe he didn’t harbor selfish feelings, but realistically knew there was nothing he could do— nothing he had that would be worth contributing. We can imagine how foolish he might have felt. Five loaves and two fish!

But in faith he offered what he had. And from his act of faith, Jesus did something impossible. Jesus, not the boy or the disciples, fed the five thousand. But he didn’t do it without requiring something. He required something that was both wholly inadequate and everything that the boy had.

In my moments of doubt, the temptation is to reassure myself by recounting my accomplishments. “Look at all that has been done. None of it would have been done without me.” But I haven’t been responsible for those accomplishments any more than the boy was responsible for feeding the five thousand.

We are called to do the best we can, to offer everything we have, inadequate though that may be. We present our five loaves and two fish to Jesus and trust him for the miracle. Then it is up to him to feed the five thousand. We must trust Jesus for the outcomes. I may not be able to be a hero, but I can bring what I have and let him be all that is needed.


Scott C. Sabin, MA, is executive director of Plant with Purpose, a nonprofit Christian organization with operations in six countries. Sabin is the author of Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God’s People and has been published in various periodicals including The New York Times, Relevant Magazine, Christianity Today, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. He is currently a contributing editor to Creation Care Magazine and a national speaker in the Creation Care movement.