When our family moved to Nairobi, Kenya, a few months ago, I braced myself for what would be the most awkward part of our transition — having a house helper in our home every day. As foreigners and people with means, we are expected to hire full-time help, providing employment for the locals.
Six days a week, a woman named Rachel, married and with two young daughters, arrives at our house at 7:30 a.m. She cleans, does the laundry, cooks our meals, and occasionally babysits our son.
Since I work from home, Rachel and I run into each other fairly often. I was eager to get to know her in the first few weeks after our arrival and asked her many questions about her life and family.
In one of these conversations, the subject of traveling came up. “I don’t want to go to another country,” Rachel told me definitively.
Without thinking, I gave her the same response I have given to every friend or relative who has expressed a similar sentiment. “Just try it,” I said with an encouraging smile. “I think you’ll find that most people in other countries are friendly. You’ll have a good experience.”
She lowered her eyes before replying. “If I was in another country, I wouldn’t know where to go for help. I wouldn’t know what to do if my boss beat me. Here in Kenya, I can still run away.”
I had known for a while that Rachel and her family were poor and struggling. I knew I was remarkably privileged in comparison. Yet, in that moment, I realized that the chasm between us was even wider than I had imagined.
I have had the immense privilege of traveling for work and for play, of exploring more than twenty countries to seek out adventure and meaningful opportunities. For Rachel, the only circumstance under which she could go to another country would be as a domestic worker, completely vulnerable to the whims of her employer and unforgiving government regulations. She had a good friend who was actually beaten to death by her employers in Qatar, simply because their young son had taken a dislike to her.
Rachel would travel only as an act of desperation, compelled by the need to provide for her family, and nothing else.
Since then I have had other encounters with Rachel — frequent reminders of just how incredibly privileged I am compared with her. Her husband is unemployed and tries to make extra money by selling clothing on the side of the road. She gladly accepts the food we won’t eat or the torn clothing I think is too worn for my son to wear again.
A few weeks ago, her older daughter accidentally broke a window at school and had to pay $40 to repair it; Rachel only had $10 in savings and asked to borrow $30 from us to make up the difference. My stomach clenched with guilt as I thought about how often I spend $30 without a second thought: on an item of clothing, a single meal, or an outing to the movies.
I am sometimes tempted to close my eyes, to shut out the obvious chasms in class and status between us. I don’t want to acknowledge the insatiable need Rachel and her family seem to have. No matter what I do — short of taking her into my family, which is not an outcome she would want anyway — it is not enough.
Yet Rachel is here, every day, in my home. She cannot be ignored. She cannot be distilled down to a statistic or a photograph on a donation appeal, easy to forget or toss aside.
I consider myself a fairly empathic and compassionate person. I have sat with many friends in times of grief and sorrow. I have given of my expertise, time, and finances in service of others, to the point of compromising my own well-being and personal desires.
But Rachel’s presence in my life has pushed me to the limits of my compassion. After a couple months, I began — slowly and so subtly that I could deny it, if asked — distancing myself from her. I stopped asking her questions about her life because I didn’t want to know more.
In my most selfish moments, I wish Rachel could act just a little happier around me. I wish she could pretend her life is better than it is.
And then I feel ashamed. I am ashamed by my unwillingness to experience, even peripherally and minimally, a modicum of Rachel’s daily suffering. I am embarrassed by my desire to prioritize my own emotional comfort above someone else’s well-being.
And yet, it is in recognizing the limits of my heart that I realize how much I truly need Jesus. All the good intentions, human compassion, and material resources in the world can only get me so far. But if I can press into the overflowing love, grace, and compassion of an infinite God, then perhaps he can sustain me through the simple act of being a consistent friend to someone in need.
The truth is that, in the beautiful, upside-down kingdom of God, my privileges of affluence, status, education, and power are not real treasures. The true privilege is the opportunity to love and serve those whom God puts in our path. I have known this for years, and yet it is only now that I feel like I am actually learning it.
As uncomfortable as it makes me, my spiritual discipline — and my gift — in this season is to continue to get to know Rachel, to learn about her life and who she is, and to explore what I can do to validate her identity as a daughter of God.
In the process, I know her testimony will continue to challenge and teach me. Her very presence will continue pointing me to the kingdom on this side of heaven.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is an award-winning writer and editor. She is a columnist for Inc.com, a regular contributor to Christianity Today and Asian American Women on Leadership, and has written for more than a dozen other publications. Her book on how to balance marriage and entrepreneurship will be published by Hachette Center Street in late 2017.
Previously Dorcas worked as a nonprofit and social enterprise professional in the US and Asia. Dorcas has an MA in Sociology and a BA in Communication from Stanford University. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and has also resided in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Kenya. Find her online at chengtozun.com or on Twitter @dorcas_ct.
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