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We all have our own coming of age stories – stories about how we grew up, the experiences that shaped us, how we became mature individuals. Well, this is one slice of mine, a topical slice, my story of becoming a responsible shopper, caring more for people than things.
I grew up in a typical church-going middle class family. Compared to much of the world, we were materially rich, and we believed ourselves to be spiritually rich as well. My heart was often moved to give to men holding signs on street corners asking for money. I agonized over stories of abused children, and gave all my savings to missionaries who helped them. I always understood compassion, but I didn’t know how I could really help.
Throughout my life, the draw to help the disadvantaged, the abused, the poor and the hopeless never wavered. I just didn’t know what I could do. After some years, I began learning more about human trafficking. I began hearing about children being sold for sex. That old familiar call to help abused children flared up inside me and I grew angry. I started watching videos and read about it insatiably. However, I wasn’t just angry. I started feeling all sorts of self-righteous.
Compassion had suddenly left the building as I watched videos of how pornography users perpetuate the system of sex slavery. I’m sure you can understand the gut-wrenching anger and disgust I felt. Sex slavery is a truly horrible thing. Partaking of pornography, drives both the user and the system, and I was really yelling at God about it!
One night, God let me go deeper and really grow that anger inside my heart, and then he led me to a video about a slavery topic that I had never heard of before: cocoa farm slavery. With all my anger at those who perpetuate the system of slavery and abuse of children, and a real disgust burning in my soul, God showed me that while pointing that one finger at users of pornography, I had three fingers pointing back at me.
I was guilty too, and it wrecked me. I had slaves working to satisfy my own cravings. In fact, I had slaves working for me in several industries like chocolate, coffee, sugar, textiles, flowers, farming, and an endless list of other areas. Not only did I have slaves, but I soon learned the very devastating circumstances that the world’s poor work in, when they can find work. I learned what it looked like for the millions of people who earn less than $1/day, or the next economic tier up from them, those who earn twice that – $2/day.
While I live in America and spend $3/day on donut shop coffee that is largely produced by the hands of slaves, many of whom are children, I live in wealth and luxury. While I complain about rising gas prices, or a co-pay at the doctor, I must remember those who have no heat and no access to medical care. And I absolutely must face the fact that my wealth and consumption contribute to the poverty, joblessness, and slavery of others around the world.
Rather than buy that $3 coffee which supports a big franchise brand whose supply chain includes vast amounts of slaves, I can choose to buy fair trade coffee – coffee that has been verified to be ethically produced at all levels, where growers are given a fair wage, workers are employed at fair wages, and ultimately the economy of some of the the most impoverished communities in the world is changed. It might cost more, and I might have to make a trade off, such as home brewing versus drive-thru convenience, or owning less stuff in favor of knowing the stuff I own does good for people around the world.
My whole life, in my supposed spiritual wealth I was taught to give to the poor, but what I never realized is that charity breeds the need for more charity, but what the poor really want is jobs – the same as you and me. They want to be able to feed, clothe and educate their children. They want to buy a home, a plot of land to garden, they want to look toward their futures, just like we do.
While charity certainly can be important, creating sustainable work, fair paying jobs, and giving them real opportunities is what is required to truly help. The man with the sign on the corner of the street doesn’t want to live his life relying on the pity of others to meet his needs – he wants a job! And so do the world’s poor.
So when it comes down to where we spend our money, how we spend our money, we have choices. We can choose to save money, to buy the cheapest thing or support a brand that is popular, or we can choose to buy from brands that are ethically produced, with supply chains that do not include slave labor, where pay is fair and people are empowered.
We can choose clothing, coffee, chocolate, shoes, sugar and salt, produced not on the backs of slaves creating a world of consumer benefit, but rather goods produced justly, purchased compassionately, and truly love the poor.
‘Tis truly better to buy than to give.