Earlier tonight, I was fortunate enough see Nadia Murad speak at the Paramount Theater in Abilene. Murad was a Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 2016, but you’ve probably never heard of her. I never had. I wouldn’t have had the chance to hear her speak if it wasn’t for one of my amazing former students getting me a ticket. Like anyone who has heard her story, I was blown away. Not only because of the horrific details of her time spent as a captive of ISIS, but also because of her presence on stage. I don’t even know how to describe it accurately. She emanated a sense of raw honesty and unflinching reality for which I wasn’t prepared. It was clear that she wasn’t happy to be on stage, because her presence on stage only came from the horrible things that happened to her, her family, and everyone she knew in her hometown. She wasn’t there to shake hands, participate in banter, and then stress the most shocking details of her story in order to boost donations. She wasn’t there because she had life-long plans of being an international figure or a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. She was there because without her telling her story, most people would have no idea what’s going on every single day in various places in the world. Like me. I had no idea. I’m blown away at my own ignorance. Every new day, our world becomes the most interconnected, networked, and information-at-your-fingertips-with-very-little-effort that it’s ever been. I can literally access more information right now with my cell phone and computer than anyone ever has in the past, and tomorrow I’ll be able to access even more. Yet, somehow, I didn’t know about Nadia.
But this isn’t going to be a “now I’m going to be involved and dedicate myself to being more aware!” post. That post would be a lie, because that’s not what I’ve taken away from Nadia’s story. The part that most impacted me came towards the end of the interview, when Nadia was asked to give her thoughts on what normal, ordinary people in a small town like Abilene, TX can do to help people halfway across the world going through genocide and injustice. As soon as the translator finished delivering the question, Nadia perked up in a way that she hadn’t previously. She gave a long answer, the gist of which was that the small, average, and seemingly ordinary efforts of normal people are what she has the most faith in. She’s talked to world leaders, prime ministers, and presidents, and she’s come to the conclusion that “ordinary people” are the ones that truly make a difference in the world. People just like her family of farmers in Sinjar, Iraq. People like construction workers, elementary school counselors, or even English professors in Abilene, TX. According to Nadia, these are the people that can actually enact justice in the world. This shook me, and it reminded me of an unexpected experience from my own life.
I’ve mentioned this before, but a few years ago my group of friends started a very small-scale non-profit organization, called the Back Porch Foundation (http://backporchfoundation.com/). What started as a group of college friends drinking too much and thinking they were way cooler than they really were has since turned into a grassroots effort based on a simple mission: Doing what we can to provide direct help to anyone that needs it. No checks, and no false promises. A single mom needs a washing machine: we go buy it and deliver it to her house. Another nonprofit needs someone to buy Christmas presents for underprivileged kids: we go to Target, crudely wrap them in corny wrapping paper, and drop the gifts off wherever they tell us to. We aren’t heroes, and we aren’t really all that good at it. But we’re trying. Ordinary people trying to help other ordinary people. A very Nadia-inspired approach to philanthropy.
What’s amazing about my experience with the Back Porch Foundation is that while things have gone well lately, they didn’t start off that way. Specifically, whenever we first had the idea of starting the Foundation, we unexpectedly confronted a very real amount of cynicism. A number of people–some of whom were actually part of our group of friends–were skeptical about the idea. We had to defend our intentions, and we had to explain our motivations. I can’t say I know exactly where these questions came from, but my best guess is that people doubted our ability to follow through, or they were unsure about whether or not we were the type of people that should be involved in the business of helping others out. Regardless of the reasons why, cynicism crept into the conversation, and it had a serious effect. We started asking ourselves those same questions, and we began to doubt our abilities to make a difference. This, of course, was misguided, and luckily a couple of years of diligent work helped us to break through those questions and arrive at a place where people are on board with a group of college friends raising money to do good for others. May sound ridiculous that proof is needed for an intention like that, but it is.
I was in the middle of many of those early conversations, and they have stuck with me ever since. Honestly, I still have a rather deep grudge against that misguided cynicism. I don’t know exactly where it comes from, but I do know what it does: it takes a person willing to help someone else and turns them into a person lamenting a missed opportunity. It takes a potentially-better world and squanders it, instead leaving us in the status quo where we complain and diagnose all that’s going wrong while sitting back and doing nothing about it. It takes Jesus ideas and turns them into should haves and wish I coulds. This should have and wish I could world depends entirely on us convincing ourselves that those people are right: we really can’t make a difference, and even if we try, our small efforts won’t even make a dent in the mass of problems in our world.
Will giving $20 to Global Samaritan end the atrocities that ISIS is enacting in Iraq? No, it won’t. Will giving a washing machine to a single mother in Dallas ensure that her children will get a great education, that she will have a high-paying job, and that her family will rest peacefully at night and know that tomorrow is going to be better than today? No, it wont. Can I personally use my own resources to house all of the homeless, feed all of the hungry, and relieve all of the pain in my home town? No, I can’t. In that sense, the cynics are right: I can’t solve the world’s problems.
But can that $20 feed an entire family in a refugee camp for a month? And can that washing machine create one less thing for that single mother to have to worry about every day? And can my dollar bills passed out of my car window perhaps help people in my town to have a better chance to peace and fulfillment tomorrow than they had today? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes. This is important, and I think we are too quick to ignore it. Small efforts do make a difference–a difference that, too often, is the biggest “change” these situations will ever see. In fact, these ordinary gestures by ordinary people are actually the most dramatic types of impacts that are made in our world. This is the message that Nadia reminded me of: the message that changing one person’s life is, in fact, changing the world. We can all do that.
Don’t give into the paralysis that comes via cynicism. Don’t let people’s skepticism convince you that you can’t do anything about the problems you see. Don’t let the doubts of the world stop you from changing it.