He gave me his name, allowed me to take his picture, and authorized me to tell his story on line. But he has never owned a computer, doesn’t realize his story could get back to his boss, so I’ll tell you his story but not his name, not his place of employment, and I won’t post his photograph. I’ll just call him John for John Doe and let him represent millions around the world, male and female, caught in the torment of poverty. Here is John Doe’s torment of poverty pretty much in his own words and the tragedy of hopeless despair.
Walking through a large retail store the size of an American Wall Mart I passed a well groomed employee smartly dressed in his company’s uniform, green companyr shirt and kaki pants. Swazis are super friendly people. John said hello to me in English and I said hello in return. I would have kept walking but John loves Americans and wanted to talk. I suppose we talked a half hour standing in the aisle of his store.
“I love Americans,” he said. He especially loved President George Bush because resident Bush gave money to Africa to combat the AIDS epidemic. John was interested in what I am doing in Swaziland and he caught the concept of a Coordinator. He loves all Americans, he said, because Americans leave America and come to Africa to help the people.
I expected him to eventually ask me for money but he never did. Instead he asked me if I could post a letter from America to the rap singer Eminem. Before I could say Eminem is a pretty vulgar rapper John’s next words are why I’m writing his story.
John loves Eminem because Eminem is angry and he sings his anger. John said, “I don’t just want to write a fan letter from Africa”. He said he understands Eminem’s anger because he (John) is filled with anger too. He listens to all of Eminem’s CD’s because the words Eminem writes are like prayers. They comfort John. “If I can post it in America his secretary can give it to him and he will read it and maybe Eminem will send me some money”.
I asked John who looked so sanguine, clean cut, smiley faced, and content why he was angry and this is what he said:
“I work seven days a week from 8 to 5. Sunday is the only day I rest my tired body because I get off work at 1 instead of 5. But on Sunday I have to do all the house work, yard work, and all the other things needing to get done. I work every day and my monthly pay is E$1,000 (about $100 U.S.). I live in a shack. I don’t have electricity. I am 30 years old. I don’t have enough money to get married. I live in a house built when I was 2 years old. The wood is rotten. When it rains snakes come in as they wish. To stay dry I sleep standing up when it rains. My father deserted my mother when I was a baby. My mother died. My sister died. Everybody died. I take care of my grandmother and she has a heart disease. I live in a neighborhood where my neighbors have electricity, cars, food, and nice things. My house is an embarrassment in the neighborhood.
I am angry because I am trapped in poverty. I don’t have enough money to fix the house or even buy food. I have bills. I am in debt. I am angry because life is not fair. I don’t have an education. I can’t afford to quit my job and look for another one. My whole life is just working in this store and never getting ahead.
I look to Eminem because I am angry and he is angry and the only way I cope with my anger is listening to his angry songs. Sometimes I get angry at my grandmother and it is not her fault and then I get angrier at myself for taking my anger out on her. She is old and sick and needs me to support her. Then I listen to Eminem and his songs are like praying because I know somebody else is angry too and that helps me not feel so alone.”
My mind whirled. We are here bringing all kinds of help to needy people but finding in this encounter with John that AIDS and orphans out in the bush are only part of the poverty epidemic of Swaziland. Average looking people we pass everyday are seething with anger at the injustice life has dealt to them through no fault of their own. They are born poor. They stay poor. They see other people living well and are tormented by enslavement to their own poverty and ignorance, and see no way out. Their only comfort is knowing they are not alone in their misery.
My heart aches for John. I know there is release from his anger. We are here with a message of love and mission of hope. But it takes time and friendship and some kind of temporal help and support to reach John Doe with spiritual hope. William Booth who started Salvation Army said, “Empty bellies cannot listen to words.” But standing there in the aisle of the store needing to be somewhere else, all I could do was listen to his heartache and see justification for the anger eating at him.
I can accept John, a Roman Catholic in childhood, turning to Eminem for solace in adulthood. In fact, John has given me a different view of Eminem. I don’t understand this culture but I get the concept. Misery loves company. I remember Rev. Morsch, who once pastored Lakeview Park Nazarene in OKC and later became a district superintendent in Florida, saying he once met Elvis Presley. He said Elvis gave him a Christian testimony as clear as it could be. I remember Rev. Morsch’s exact words. He said, “Don’t try and understand it. These people live in a different world.” And I remind myself ours is not to judge. We leave that to God.
John Doe like millions is looking in the wrong place for the right answer. Comfort and rest are found in relationship with God and only God Himself can give that glimmer of faith to believe He is real. Once realized, the love of God transcends even poverty and fills the life with hope. Thousands of Swazis living in poverty have found this hope and peace in spite of poverty. We work with them every day. They are not happy being poor but they are happy with themselves in spite of being poor. Marx called religion, “opium of the masses,” but this was wrong. People who blame Christianity for the Crusades, Inquisitions, the Salem witch hunts always get it wrong. They ask, “If there is a loving God why is there so much misery in the world?” That argument can be answered with an equal question, “If there is no devil the opposite of a loving God, a devil why is there so much misery in the world?” They call faith in God a myth, ignorance, intellectual poverty, a psychosis, a placebo for reality, opium of the masses. They laugh at faith in God comforting themselves in a hopeless faith of their own that life and all that is has no creator, no intelligence behind it, no eternal purpose. Not believing in God they neither believe in the evil one who’s purpose it is to destroy and kill. Denying the existence of both God and Satan their answers to life are not all bad but their ultimate faith is in a faith in Nothing. Their ultimate answers to life is limited earth bound do goodism after which… Nothing. Better schools. Better food distribution. Health care for the poor. Improved sanitation. We do all of these but in themselves they are not enough. John Doe exists and people like you and I search them out with a message of new spiritual life. They are not happy in their misery. They are looking for something, someone, anyone, Eminem, to lift them out of their anger and misery.
My encounter with John is one of the most significant encounters I have had over here. His poverty is real. His anger is understandable and even justifiable. He confronts me with my purpose for being here. If there is a God can he reach into the depth of misery and pain and anger of this John Doe? And if he can, can I be the channel of love. And if I can, will I?
Flying over here from Atlanta, Ga. in a center seat on the Delta airplane the lady to my left was a South African national. I asked her if she could say anything at all to help prepare me for what I was about to find in Swaziland. Her name was Lynn and I will never forget her for what she said. Lynn said, “You can’t fix it. The problems are so big and complicated and heart breaking that no one person can fix it. What you are doing is small. But it is big. You will make a difference. But you can’t fix it. Don’t feel guilty for having more than they have. Do your job and just know you can’t fix it.”
Well, we do fix much in many ways, but Lynn’s words are true. The problem will still be here when I leave Swaziland. But like throwing star fish on the sand back in the ocean, we can by all means save some.
I’ve been back to see John two more times to befriend him and let him know I’ll keep coming back I Googled Eminem’s address on Sunset Avenue in Hollywood and told John to write his letter and that I will mail it to Eminem for him when I get back to the States. I have a precious total of eight more months to keep going back to John with a better letter from the Book of Life with the hope and prayer of introducing him to a better Friend than Eminem. We both need your prayer.