A few weeks ago I shared my Thoughts From India and Lessons Learned In India (my first guest post). But as my henna fades, I’m afraid my convictions from my trip will, too. One insight I desperately want to remember is how seeing real poverty left me more motivated than ever to “pretend to be poor” in order to share more resources. Witnessing wide economic disparities firsthand was a poignant reminder that I’m just pretending; our lifestyle is truly luxurious by global standards. It was also a good reminder of why I’m pretending, and an encouragement to continue, so I can help those who aren’t just pretending.
By pretending to be poor, I mean living below our means so that we can have extra to give and save. We would never claim to actually be poor or deprived in any sense, and we’re quite content with our lifestyle. Our tongue-in-cheek title comes from a proverb and one of our main goals goals of financial flexibility is to help the destitute. In fact, I believe generosity can be a more effective motivator for wise financial habits than early retirement, financial independence, or even debt payoff. (Read why in the post Get Rich With Generosity.)
I didn’t visit the streets of Calcutta, but I saw one of the world’s largest slums, the massive encampment spanning the outskirts of the Mumbai airport grounds, described in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. I was comfortably bubbled behind the airplane window and can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to walk through its paths, but the sea of blue tarps that is home to one million people left an impression.
On our way to visit a village church we drove through narrow dirt alleys crowded by small, low-roofed homes. These are the real tiny homes, without the high-tech innovations to make them comfortable.
At a children’s home, I met hoards of kids whose parents can’t afford to take care of them. They are well cared for in the homes, but they still live in conditions we’d consider sub-par for our children—twelve to a room in bunks, with a small cubby for their personal belongings.
Another team from our church visited a remote village that our church sponsors. Before the sponsorship program began, they had so little food that at times meals would consist of starchy water leftover from cooking.
In the streets, beggars, often with small children, knocked on our van’s windows. You want to help but you don’t know if they are being exploited, or if a small handout would do much good anyway. And you certainly can’t help everyone in this situation.
We all know this level of disparity exists, and you don’t have to travel the globe to see it. A few years ago I volunteered at an inner city after school program where many of the elementary-aged kids went home to empty houses and no dinner. But in everyday life we are largely sheltered from these extreme conditions. We don’t have time in our busy schedules to enter into the mess we know exists. So instead we simply feel sad when it comes up in conversation.
Evoking guilt is the furthest goal from my mind. I believe contemplating inequity and doing something about it can inspire us to resist our culture’s tide of lifestyle inflation like nothing else. As we deflate our lifestyle we aim to inflate our usefulness, in part by helping others. I wrote about how to Get Rich With Generosity & have experienced that giving away money is one of the best ways to become more disciplined with money. However, it’s not really about getting rich or poor, and certainly not about inflating my ego instead of my lifestyle.
Before my trip, I’d occasionally receive a letter from a charity we donate to, outlining a need and requesting additional funds. For the most part I viewed these letters as annoying. “I’m already giving what I want to give to this group,” I’d think and trash the letter without even reading it.
I just received a letter from the organization I traveled with, explaining their fundraising needs for a special training conference. Now that I’ve seen their ministry firsthand, I understand why supporting the conference is so important. Many of the pastors live on a very small stipend, provided by their own congregation after two years of outside sponsorship, and may lack basics such as electricity, shoes, or access to transportation. Far from an annoyance, this letter became a welcome opportunity to practice noblisse oblige and participate in God’s work across the world.
I can’t respond to every letter by sending money, but I’m now equipped to make better decisions about these requests. I have a whole new schema for the realities in developing areas. More than ever I see sharing with others as a way of striving toward equality: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality” (2 Corinthians 8:13).
No one can eliminate poverty, but we can help improve the life of one person. Or maybe two or three or ten. I encourage you to consider sponsoring a child in poverty. Many charities have a program for child sponsorship because the need is vast, as is the potential for impact. If you’re looking for a trustworthy group, I witnessed India Gospel League in action this summer, and friends of mine highly recommended Compassion International after seeing their work firsthand. Both are doing balanced, legitimate, cost-effective, holistic ministry to truly impoverished people.
Do you think helping others can be a financial motivator?
I just returned from India this weekend, and while my jet-lagged brain is struggling to form coherent thoughts, I wanted to share some highlights.
I loved the overall experience. The people we met were warm and interesting, the food was amazing, and our itinerary included many powerful experiences. Much of what I learned is more personal than personal finance, but I’ll try to share the most relevant bits here.
I had the privilege of meeting a child we sponsor, and his mother. I didn’t know his mother was coming, or that she was his mother at first. She spoke a little English and was translating for us. Since they send translators from the children’s homes, I thought she was a caretaker there. She was blatantly mothering him throughout the meeting, and at some point I asked if she was his mother. When she said yes, the meeting suddenly became even more emotional. As a mom, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be find yourself unable to provide your child’s basic needs. She kept saying “very thank you” over and over. Rather than feeling like I’m so great for helping out this family, I felt very humbled. I don’t deserve the many blessings and advantages that allow me to help them. And although I don’t know the exact circumstances of their family, it’s safe to assume that forces outside of their control have contributed to their financial situation.
I was able to tell women that they are valuable in God’s sight. This is not a predominant message in many of their homes. We spoke to groups of 100-250 women, mostly from rural villages. We also got to hear a few of the women’s testimonies. Some recounted tragic stories, but the overall theme was one of overcoming through faith.
Since becoming a mother, I’ve been trying to imagine a more global and historical perspective on marriage and motherhood than what I’m immersed in here in suburban America. While we can barely keep up with ever-changing car seat laws, Indians pile a family of five onto a small motor scooter and zoom off into traffic that looks like anarchy to the Western eye. I adhere to my children’s nap time almost religiously, but saw Indian kids sleeping on said scooters, and floors or tables anywhere. The heat must help—I could have passed out on the floor, too! Contemplating the arranged marriage tradition and hearing the stories of traveling pastor’s wives also shed light on how cultural my notion of marriage is.
I didn’t miss much from home, except maybe toilet paper in public restrooms and being able to drink tap water. And there were a couple days that our schedule didn’t allow for a decent dose of after lunch caffeine. Turns out it’s really hard to stay awake while sitting for 10 hours in 95 degree heat! But I’ve returned with little taste for American food, and tried to recreate an Indian dish last night. I also didn’t miss Facebook, texting, or email. I’m sure the short-lived nature of the trip made it easier to get on without these. Of course, I missed my family and friends, though I never got homesick. I was able to call my family three times, including on my son’s birthday.
I also noticed that things didn’t have to be perfect. India is extremely diverse so I don’t want to over-generalize, but in the circles we were with, people didn’t seem to mind if the music wasn’t perfect, if the conference got off schedule, or if their clothes and sandals match or fit perfectly, for example. I’m sure a lot of this arises out of not having the option for perfection. They are used to the electricity going out regularly for brief periods (which is rough when your only cooling comes from ceiling fans). They are used to their kids wearing too small clothes we wouldn’t think of putting our children in, because we don’t have to. It struck me that I spend too much time trying to make my living room look perfect or my teachings for India perfect, when no one but me even cares. Striving to match our lives with the sleek, immaculate images of edited advertisements only wastes time and frustrates us as we fail to comply with impossible standards. I hope to take our principle that Life is Not About Your Preferences to a new level with this insight.
We were completely pampered. I don’t think I opened a car door or poured a cup of coffee for myself while there. We experienced a much more service-oriented culture, which was sometimes hard for us self-reliant American to take. However, I also feel pretty triumphant for having flown on 13 planes in 15 days, survived two weeks away from my family, conquered the squatty potty, feasted on spicy foreign cuisine without digestive distress, and taught large groups through a translator in significant heat & humidity. Venturing outside my comfort zone built my faith and confidence, and I believe this experience has increased my flexibility and usefulness in many ways.
Seeing real poverty has only increased my desire to pretend to be poor, (tongue-in-cheek a la Proverbs 13:7) so that I can have more to share with the truly poor. And it’s given me new vantage points on living with contentment, defining necessity, and the depths of human creativity for making do, or doing without.
What have you learned from traveling? How do you strive for perfection in unnecessary ways?
So I’m leaving for India in 2 days! I can’t believe it’s finally here. I’ve experienced a huge range of emotions about this trip in the year since I was invited to go, from extreme excitement to major nerves to downright dread. For about 8 months it didn’t even seem real, and now I can’t wait to be there. I’m weary of preparing; I just want to do what I’ve been anticipating for so long.
Though I’ve been brewing lots of ideas for money-related posts, I’m in full-time India mode. I’ve set aside all the personal finance thoughts swirling in my mind to steep myself in what I’ll teach in India. I’ve prepared two conference teachings, a personal testimony, and some other materials should I be asked to speak at the last minute. My bag is 95% packed. I have one errand to run. Yet I feel wildly unprepared. Who wouldn’t? I could get ready for this trip forever. But as with personal finance, and so many other areas of life, you could read about it and prepare forever. At some point you just have to do it. Take the first step toward your goal.
And so, I’ll step onto that plane. I’ll keep studying hard and praying hard. And then some day next week, I’ll step onto the podium, open my mouth, and start speaking. If I waited for these teachings to be perfect, no one would ever hear them. I’ll teach women I’ve never met who are from a culture foreign to me. I can’t rely on humor, allusions, or certain illustrations as I might here. I can’t rely on my wording because I’ll teach through a translator. I could do a great job or completely bomb it. But it isn’t about me, and honestly, I won’t even know whether it’s well-received. My hope is that God will use what I’ve prepare to encourage the women who have taken an equally big step to attend the conference.
During hectic times I’ve wished I could just prepare for India—nothing else. Of course, this isn’t how life works. My kids still need a mom. My husband still needs a wife. My friends still need a friend. Thankfully everyone has been incredibly helpful–except my 1-year-old! Even my son has encouraged me that it’s going to be great, I’ll have so much fun, and he won’t miss me at all (um, thanks?).
The same holds true for money: we could all be great with our money if life didn’t get in the way. We could save way more if we didn’t have anything else going on. We’d spend so much less if we didn’t have kids who get sick or cars that break or houses to repair. It helps to remember this is what money is for—meeting our needs, and those of others.
I’ve had to remind myself of this as I spend a hefty sum on this trip (ameliorated by many generous donations!). It doesn’t make sense from a purely financial perspective. However, it aligns exactly with our goal of financial flexibility—taking opportunities that fit in the bigger picture of our life purposes. In fact, this is why we aim for flexibility instead of financial “freedom.” I’ve wanted to go on an international missions trip for 10 years. When the opportunity finally came, the price tag didn’t stop me because we are willing to spend on what we value, and we’re able to in part because we’ve reduced spending on what we don’t value. God also provided funds for the trip through many generous donations, including a nearly-free car that Neil was able to fix up and sell. While we try to be good stewards of our money, the donations and car sale profit was pure grace. We didn’t deserve any of this help.
I am hoping to gain some insight into pretending to be poor as I see another side of the world, though I can’t predict what I’ll discover. Surely I’m bound to learn something, and I can’t wait to share it when I return. I’m not sure that I’ll have wifi or the ability to post while I’m there. And I doubt Neil will be able to post amidst keeping these babies alive for two weeks without me. So until then, namaste!
How does travel fit in with your priorities? And what have you learned from traveling?
I’ve already alluded to my upcoming short-term missions trip to India this summer. While staying in India is relatively inexpensive, flying an open jaw there in late August is not, and we’ll also do a fair amount of flying in-country, which also hikes the price. Friends and family have generously donated toward my trip, and I cannot express my gratitude enough. In addition to taking the edge off the $3500 price-tag, knowing that a host of comrades are behind me offers inexpressible moral support.
Neil also “raised” a portion of the cost by flipping a car. With fairly minimal effort, he turned an $1800 profit on a car a co-worker sold him at a killer friend price. More on this soon.
But short-term missions trips invariably raise questions about the best use of funds, and as this is a fair objection I’ve wrestled with myself, I hope this post will provide some answers. The trip may also raise an eyebrow from a personal finance perspective and here I’ll address why it’s worth the money to us.
Couldn’t that money be better used over there?
Could the $3500 cost of the trip feed a lot of hungry kids, dig some clean-water wells, or fund many micro-loans? Absolutely. I care about those causes, and we donate monthly toward poverty relief and church-planting in India & Ethiopia. In fact, generosity is one of our goals for pretending to be poor. You can read about why to give away money in these posts:
- The Treasure Measure
- Get Rich With Generosity
- Inflate Your Usefulness, Not Your Lifestyle
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Money
I also believe this trip will change my sense of agency and urgency regarding these causes. Neil’s (somewhat less expensive) trip to India two years ago spurred him to help raise the awareness and funding to sponsor an entire rural village, bringing in food, clean water, hygiene education, agricultural development, education for children, skills training for adults, and spiritual leadership for those interested. The Adopt-a-Village program is a $75,000 total commitment over five years. This far exceeds what it cost Neil to witness the stark needs in a rural village first-hand, though it was certainly not a poverty tourism trip.
I’m hoping the trip will change not only my commitment as a donor and an advocate for people in need, but also bring some perspective to my admittedly cushy life. I know I shouldn’t complain when the store is out of the exact type of milk I want; I know I shouldn’t bemoan the “heat” when my thermostat reads 82 degrees and I “have to” decide whether to turn on the air conditioning. Friends who have visited testify that nothing puts our first-world problems into their proper place like visiting a developing area.
Another reason I consider it worthwhile to go is that the organization, India Gospel League, invites people to “come and see.” They operate on a streamlined budget, with relatively little spent on overhead, administration, staff, etc. They know the needs firsthand and what our trip costs could accomplish if spent elsewhere. Yet they invite us because:
- They invite sponsors to see where their money goes each month. Visiting overseas is by no means requisite to entrusting an organization with money. However, IGL’s value of eyewitness trips indicates a level of transparency.
- They invite sponsors to meet their sponsored children and/or villages. Neil’s trip highlight was meeting our sponsored child. I’m hoping to meet him as well, and imagine this will impart a new passion for praying for him and writing him. We’ve certainly sent him a lot more gifts and letters since Neil met him.
- They invite foreigners to teach the Bible, for a couple reasons:
- People like to hear those from other countries speak. We’re the same way, right? Maybe they achieve better conference attendance by bringing in cross-cultural speakers.
- As an American, I’ve had more ready access to Bible teaching than the average village woman in India. This doesn’t make me more qualified; I’ve simply been blessed with advantages like literacy, Bible classes, and other resources.
- They understand these trips strengthen partnership and interdependence, which is IGL’s vision for their relationship with foreign churches. They are very emphatic about outside financial support being temporary, and using funds effectively. For example, “barefoot pastors” receive outside support for two years, at which time their church takes over financial support. Programs like vocational training, elementary through post-secondary education, and micro-loans all “teach people to fish” rather than simply giving hand-outs.
There are many other things we could do with the money I’ll spend on the trip. However, it is for opportunities like these that we want to be financially flexible.
Can I really do anything useful in two weeks?
Along with my team, I’ll teach two women’s conferences of 50-100 women who pass the knowledge and convictions to the women in their villages. So while teaching a couple times through a translator seems like a pittance compared with the world’s needs, there is potential for a ripple effect. Again, I don’t feel qualified as a great speaker, but I trust that IGL understands how to leverage our efforts, and God certainly does.
We’ll also visit two house churches and do a song and dance (literally) for the children’s home at the mission base. We’ll play with kids, meet our sponsored children, tour IGL’s facilities, and interact with adults. Neil served lepers lunch while there; others prayed with cancer patients. The main reason I don’t think this trip is a scam or waste of time is that the Indian leaders have ongoing, established work there through local churches. We are just partnering by bringing our resource of Bible teaching at their request.
If you’re interested in sponsoring a child, pastor, micro-loan, or otherwise donating to India Gospel League, check out their web site to learn more. It’s a great way to inflate your usefulness instead of your lifestyle by improving someone else’s life significantly.
What do you think of short-term missions trips? Or spending on travel in general?