When I was in college we used to play a game at freshman orientation called “I love my neighbor who…” It is a great ice breaker for a large group. Everyone forms a large circle, then someone stands in the center and says “I love my neighbor who…” and finishes the sentence with a fact about themselves. Anyone else in the group who shares that trait has to run to a new spot in the circle, musical chair style, and whoever doesn’t make it gets the next turn. It is a silly game, but at the core idea is one so obvious that we sometimes forget how true it is. No matter how hard we try to be open minded, we find it easier to identify with people who are like us in some way.
My Facebook newsfeed lit up with red, white, and blue in solidarity with France on the night of the terrorist attack there last week. At the same time, a small number of people began questioning why so many found it easy to empathize with the French, but much less attention was given to similar attacks earlier that week in the Middle East and elsewhere. The implication was that we care more about the French because they are white and Western, like us. The truth is, the reasons why any one of us may be more or less moved by particular events or causes are complex. None of us can honestly say that our hearts are big enough to hold all of the grief and sorrow in the world. It is hard not to turn away when the world’s suffering seems so big, and our own ability to change it feels so small.
So what are we to do? Drop everything, quit our jobs, sell our homes, and join a relief organization? Maybe. But obviously not for everyone. Sigh, shed a tear, post something on Facebook, then go back to our holiday shopping and soy lattes? Maybe. But I would like to suggest a small, easy way that most of us can help. It doesn’t involve anything complicated or expensive. In fact, it is something many people already do every day. All you have to do is make dinner. But do it on purpose, with a purpose. It can be as simple as stirring a pot of lentils and rice while saying a prayer for Syrian refugees. Or invite a few friends to join you. Pick a part of the world that has a need, cook a meal from there, ask each of your friends to bring a few dollars, and make a donation together to a charity of your choice. Get your church involved. Last year our tiny little parish had a fundraiser for the International Orthodox Christian Charities‘s refugee relief efforts. Most of the members of our parish live far from the church and have full time jobs or lots of home responsibilities. Organizing a large event to raise money would be daunting to say the least. But we took something we do anyway and did it for a purpose. We had our regular meal after Sunday services, but with an international menu. We asked everyone to make some contribution, as small or as large as they wished. By the end of coffee hour our small, busy, and far from wealthy group had raised $250. A tiny drop in the ocean of need, but better than no drop at all.
Cooking a meal from somewhere far away and sending a few dollars to a charity is a far cry from selling all we have and giving it to the poor. But it is better than doing nothing at all. People who have left the comfort of home and family to serve those in need generally know how to get the most out of even the smallest of donations, so if you aren’t going to go to faraway places (or the slums of your own home town) you might as well support the people who do. And if we can stretch our own hearts just a little in the process, so much the better. Yes, I ought to love my neighbor who is human, who breathes air and drinks water and walks on two feet. But there are so many of them, sometimes it is hard not to see the ones who are separated from me either by geography or by culture as not-quite-real. If it is easier to empathize with those who are most like us, then eating a meal from another culture might be more than just a culinary adventure. It creates a tiny but concrete bit of common ground. Yes, I should love all my neighbors. But if it is easier to start somewhere specific, then I will begin by loving my neighbor who eats lentils.
If you are wondering where to send money to do the most good, the IOCC is a truly fantastic charity. They work with local governments, churches, and NGOs to maximize their effectiveness, maintain very low administrative and operating costs, and witness God’s love to the world by promoting peace and cooperation among different ethnic and religious groups in areas of the world where there is conflict. It is also one of the few international charities to actually have people on the ground in Syria helping those displaced and threatened by war.