Who is learning from whom?

As Anna said in the “The King and I” a movie and play where an English tutor is engaged to teach the children of the King of Siam, “If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.” This is actually based on a true story of Anna Leonowns and King Mongkut, so the line has even more merit. I use this reference which I read this morning in a USA Weekend article called “Voluntary Volunteer” by Mo Rocca about this same theme. In the volunteer work with homeless families I have been blessed and privileged to do, one of our secret sauces to success is our Hope Teams which mentor the families.

I equate the two stories for the following reason. One of our requirements for our Hope Teams, which are almost entirely made up of the faith community, is to not witness to the families. You are witnessing by deed by trying to help, but cannot proselytize your faith to them as it can be off-putting. It did not take long for us to realize that the converse was occurring. Or, as our Executive Director used to say “Who is witnessing to whom?” The irony is these families who were forced into homelessness due to the loss of one of their jobs, reduced hours, healthcare crisis, car crisis, etc. held tightly to the only thing that could give them comfort – their faith.

Through this devotion in times of such great crisis and anguish, our faith community members would come away from the mentoring relationships with a renewed faith. They were learning from the people in need they were helping. I mention this as well, as there are some who believe that people are in trouble because they are less virtuous. Bob Lupton who wrote the book that all volunteers must read, “Toxic Charity,” lives among those he is trying to help. One of the key lessons Lupton shares is when one of those who had been helped lamented about a church bus coming to help do certain things. When Lupton asked why, the person said, please do not get me wrong. We greatly appreciate their help. Yet, I wish the helpers would ask us about our faith, so we can have a conversation around a mutual interest. He said some people with good hearts assume we are less pious because of our situation.

In the book “The Rich and the Rest of Us” by Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, they address this misconception head on. The number one misconception about poverty is the following assertion – “poverty is the absence of money.” It is no more or less. West and Smiley define it this way to get away from a belief of poverty being due to less virtue. When people spend time helping those in need, the helpers come away with the learning that poverty has nothing to do with being less virtuous.

I took some time off between jobs last year and did some tutoring of two fifth graders. While tutoring them in math, I came away with as much as they hopefully did. They both were English-as-a-second language citizens who moved here from countries in Africa. One girl lived in-house with ten people and three generations. The other girl lived in a house with seven people and three generations. These two young girls had a heavy role in household chores, both cooking and cleaning, to help the breadwinners. So, imagine trying to study as a fith grader when you go home and have to work so hard beforehand. Also, the countries they left have issues still. So, the fact the girls made it here, gives them a much greater advantage over their former compatriots.

In addition to these learnings for me, I also came away with the following. These young girls wrote a brief letter to their school counselor asking for help as they were worried about the End of Grade exams. For those who have children, please reread the above sentence and remember the age of a fifth grade student. The school is teaching their students how to advocate for themselves in a civil manner. They do this with conflict among their peers as well. They could teach our leaders a few lessons about civil discussion and conflict resolution.

Let me close with the following observation. The psychic income of helping others is huge. If you help someone, you gain as much, sometimes more, than the person you help. You learn from them. Someone asked a popular DJ what was her greatest tip when she was delivering pizzas while in college? Without batting an eye, she said $2. When asked why, she said she delivered a pizza to a poor neighborhood and the young kids were so excited when she rang the doorbell. The mother explained we don’t have much, but once a month, we splurge on a pizza for the kids. When the future DJ tried to leave, the mother said, wait, let me give you your tip and gave the pizza person $2. When she tried to decline, the mother said, you work hard and I insist that you take this. Think about that for a while.