Not being much of a television watcher, I confess I’ve never actually seen the show Survivor. I understand many people really enjoy it. I simply cannot get my head around why it is so appealing. As with so many other things, I’m probably just missing something.
Maybe it’s due to my ignorance, but I actually find the whole premise of the show a bit disturbing. Recently, I heard a comedian do a bit on the twisted nature of our culture, using Survivor as an example. After all, he said, we are the people who make a game show where contestants can win huge cash prizes for spending thirty days in a place where others struggle to eke out a living their whole lives. “But we have to be here without our cell phones,” he said, “and that is reeeeeallly hard!?!”
I’m guessing that as one watches the contestants “playing” Survivor, you never see the actual residents who struggle daily to survive. They are the ones who don’t get to fly home at the end of the episode and who have no chance at a cash reward in exchange for a few days of inconvenience. The focus of the real survivors is on working for their daily bread and finding enough clean water—and not on scheming their way toward a million dollar payday.
I myself don’t really know anything about survival in its most basic forms. My family has always had something to eat in our cupboard. We’ve always had access to clean drinking water. Even at our poorest, my family had a reliable place to live and available medical care if one of us fell sick. But my reality is not shared by far too many people who really do struggle each and every day to survive.
Today I am flying home from six weeks of work in Kenya. Despite a few stretches without electricity, hot water and (oh my gosh!) internet/cell service, I “survived” quite nicely and comfortably.
On the days we stayed in Kisumu, I tried to walk the mile or so to the FUM office. Along the way, I passed a small shanty which appeared to serve the dual purpose of home and small storefront. Often I would see two or three children running around and a chicken or two scratching in the dust. Once, or maybe twice, I believe I actually saw someone stopping to purchase something from the very sparse inventory at the store.
Often when we think of survival, we imagine people way out in the boondocks or the bush with little access to “civilization.” In reality, daily survival is increasingly an urban issue. These days, one out of six people on the planet live in an urban slum. Many researchers predict the number will grow to one in four within twenty years. Along with a growing shortage of clean water, the World Bank suggests that urban poverty will be the most significant and politically explosive problem in the twenty-first century.
The house I have been passing each day is actually pretty safe and stable compared to places like Nairobi’s Kibera slum, or slums I have seen in Mumbai, Lima, or Katmandu. In these places, squatters run the constant risk of being displaced. Crime, prostitution, sanitation issues, and unemployment have a death grip on the inhabitants. The fight for simple survival is a daily reality.
If the church is going to have an impact in this century, it must embrace these places. There are amazing opportunities for evangelism and discipleship, peacemaking, health and healing ministries, economic development, and justice-related work. More and more, as Christianity flourishes in the global south, it is happening in large part through these points of entry.
Quakers are involved in this work but not to a great extent. This morning, as I pass this home and shop again, I am pondering the incarnational nature of God’s love toward us. One translation of John 1:14 states, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” I wonder if some of us are being called to do more than short trips to visit, or hit-and-run ministries that get in and get out long before we are inconvenienced. At a time when there is so much need and such a great opportunity, how might Friends move into the neighborhood to embrace the place and embody Christ’s light and love?