I may have mentioned before that Lisa Samson is sort of a heroine of mine, not just because she’s one of the few writers of “Christian fiction” whose work I genuinely admire and enjoy, but also because, in novels like Quaker Summer and nonfiction like Justice in the Burbs (co-authored with her husband Will), she confronts the issues of social justice that get far too little attention in many corners of North American Christianity.
And she confronts those issues with a refreshing honesty. Samson and her family have made radical lifestyle changes in response to the call to serve the poor; they moved from a comfortable surbaban life into an inner-city circle of Christians living together in intentional community and service. Lisa Samson is always upfront about how challenging this move was for her, and the struggles she’s had with her middle-class Christian guilt when confronted with the overwhelming needs of the world and their challenges to her comfortable lifestyle.
In this book, Lisa and her teenaged daughter Ty take a trip to Africa with an aid organization to see firsthand the work that’s being done there among the AIDS-ravaged communities of Swaziland. Lisa and Ty take turns telling about the people they met and things they saw from their perspective, and recording how the trip rocked their assumptions and challenged their faith.
It’s not always an easy or comfortable book to read, but it does challenge the reader to think, “What am I doing, and what more can I do, in the face of poverty both nearby and across the globe?” An interesting point in the epilogue reminded me of the conclusions reached in another parent-child-Africa memoir I read recently: The Power of Half, by Kenneth and Hannah Salwen. Lisa and Ty discovered, as the Salwens did, that while well-meaning Westerners often want to do something very practical and hands-on for African communities, like gong over there to build schools or sending boxes of handmade clothing, the best help you can give, almost always, is the least sexy: donate money to a reputable aid agency, preferably one you’ve researched and know a good deal about, that will employ local people to do what needs to be done, creating jobs and sustainable change rather than short-term, flown-in solutions.
Mind you, if you’ve got the time and the money and can manage to do what the Samsons did and spend some actual time in an African community, meeting with the local people who are trying to create these solutions, you will be left, as Lisa and Ty were, with unforgettable images of real people behind the statistics, and with a desire to do all you can to help others, not just across the world but also close to home.