Give, Pray, Love: A Mid-Life Crisis
It seemed prudent at age forty to schedule a mid-life crisis since the average American life expectancy is about eighty. Being a stay-at-home mom, I made most of the family-related decisions; therefore my midlife crisis would affect us all – my husband, Jay, fifteen-year old son Jonathan, and twelve-year old daughter Meredith. After eighteen years of marriage Jay knew that when I was on a mission from God he had better stand aside.
My mission from God started with shoes, children’s shoes. I helped organize a “Shoes for Orphan Souls” shoe drive (sponsored by Buckner Orphan Care International) to our church in 1999. A small group of us drove all over Houston buying shoes to send overseas with money raised from our Baptist congregation. At a ridiculously old age I had learned what the New Testament Epistle of James had been saying for nearly 2,000 years (Baptists quote Scripture. It is in our DNA):
What good is it, my sisters and brothers, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a sister or brother is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)
I believed I had faith but my works were minimal and therefore my faith was headed towards death. Examining my daily schedule, what I read, my checkbook, and what I watched on television, the obvious conclusion would be that I was making financial gifts because they were much easier and spiritually safer than getting my hands and heart dirty. My family has consistently given money and time, but out of a sense of obligation and not out of love. If I was going to have a effective mid-life crisis then I needed to make some huge changes in the legacy I would leave to my children and grandchildren.
I believed I had faith, but my works were minimal and therefore my faith was headed towards death.
In summer 2000, the Buckner folks allowed me, Jonathan, and Meredith to work with a group of college students in Romania. It was a nightmare and a blessing all rolled into one ten-day period.
There were turbulent and life-changing moments. During a cold snap in the Carpathian Mountains we had to borrow donated sweaters to keep warm. There is nothing more humbling than wearing clothes donated to the poor and being grateful. We left the sweaters with the children when we finished our work. I clashed with a Buckner staffer over his doctrinal stance and evangelistic approach. Still, despite the emotional and spiritual turmoil we found ourselves falling in love with the orphaned Romanian children while we ran summer camps and vacation Bible schools. Children hung off each of us like we were jungle gyms. It was terribly painful to say goodbye to Mavi, Grigorie, and Anna. I tried via e-mail to maintain a relationship with them, sponsoring them in high school and then college, but they all dropped out for reasons mostly beyond their control. I still hear from them occasionally and am left wondering what I could have done differently. I so wish the unexamined life was worth living.
I want to prepare women and girls to speak truth to power like so many biblical women did.
What should we do now? I decided to continue traveling with Buckner in ways that would be authentic to my faith. Since 1999 the organization has delivered more than two million pairs of shoes and socks to children in sixty-eight countries, including the U.S. after Katrina hit. I joined Buckner’s foundation and continued to help run yearly shoes drives and also visited Buckner-sponsored orphanages worldwide. In Kenya, I along with a team of volunteers sat on the floor, washed children’s feet, put on socks, tied shoestrings, and read notes to the children placed in the shoes by donors. In various countries I held crying children, sang, took a ridiculous number of photographs, said the wrong thing, steered a plane for about ten seconds over the Kalahari desert, ate caterpillars, brushed my teeth with bottled water, handed out medication, wiped dirty noses, asked insensitive questions, sat through a three-hour church service, wore a skirt (that won’t happen again) and tried to treat others as I would want to be treated, but not once did I try to “save” a soul. I would let God do the saving.
Lessons at the Orphanage
What I learned from visiting developing-world orphanages:
1. Orphanages are primarily filled with girls and special-needs children because these children are less likely to be able to care financially for their parents in old age.
2. Orphanages are deathly quiet. Babies quickly discover that crying does not bring about swaddling, so they stop crying. Orphanage workers are underpaid and overburdened with children.
3. Orphanages are not always safe, particularly for girls.
4. Foster care is rare.
5. Most orphans are put out on the street with no further support by age eighteen.
At age forty-five I decided that I hadn’t really finished my forty-year-old’s mid-life crisis. At this point I had been a stay-at-home mom for twenty-one years and I knew that it wouldn’t go well for me if I walked past two empty bedrooms numerous times a day. When Meredith left to get an entrepreneurship degree from Babson College I stuck my toe into the seminary pool to see if I found the water warm and inviting or if a cold, harsh temperature would shock me (I hope the baptism imagery isn’t lost). I was amazed at how quickly my obsession at being a great parent was transferred to being a great student. (I was devastated when I got my first B.) I went part-time at three seminaries with Houston branches and then transferred to Yale Divinity School, where I studied and I slept.
During the two YDS years Jay become increasingly involved with a Christian microloan organization where he sat on a Ghanaian bank board. This meant a lot of frequent flyer miles. He changed from being a man who only read financial periodicals to one who devoured books on the developing world at record speed.
The “Girl Effect”
After Meredith and I both graduated in May 2009 all three of us became aware that microfinance alone wasn’t the answer to poverty that we had been led to believe it was. Rather we found that education (literacy, numeracy, business skills), whether in conjunction with microloans or not, seemed to be necessary for real change in an individual’s or a family’s life. After many sleepless nights and emotionally charged discussions with God and each other, we began to focus on the importance of educating girls. “The Girl Effect” describes how an educated girl improves her family and an educated family creates world change.1
I imagine nighttime Bible studies that teach entire communities that God sees their pain and doesn’t require earthly suffering in exchange for eternity in heaven.
As I finish writing this, we are still doing our due diligence talking to teaching professionals at YES Academy, KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) and Teach for America (the largest employer of Yale and Harvard grads), as well as school “edupreneurs” (entrepreneurs who start schools) all over the world. As a result, our family has begun the Grant Me The Wisdom fund to develop and finance educational programs as well as other areas of need for the poorest of the poor. I want to spend the last half of my life educating mothers and their daughters, because when you educate a mother you educate her children. We have learned that moms and dads on various continents are asking to come to their children’s schools at night to learn American English. I imagine nighttime Bible studies that teach entire communities that God feels their pain and doesn’t require earthly suffering in exchange for eternity in heaven. I want to prepare women and girls to speak truth to power like so many biblical women did.
I want my life to matter. Before I close my eyes and head to one of those rooms God has prepared for me, I want to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7) Most importantly, I want to know that God is pleased with my life.
What I’ve learned now that I’m 50 (I’m slow):
1. There is no single solution to poverty. Infrastructure (roads, electricity, clean water, sanitation), healthcare, savings accounts, political and economic stability, women’s equality, dependable legal systems, and local leadership are all necessary.
2. I am a glutton. I eat whenever I want and more than I need, which means I must exercise. I use excessive amounts of natural resources and make more waste than the average person living in the developing world.
3. Education and meaningful employment bring hope and stability to people and nations. Poverty causes understandable anger that results in political and social unrest.
4. Before making a purchase I ask myself if I want this item or I need this item. There is a difference.
5. Transparency and accountability are essential regardless of whether you are working with a Christian organization or a secular one. Insist on it.
6. Organizations must work with one another regardless of their ideological bent. I have worked with and will continue to work with folks with whom I have nothing in common.
7. I am not in the least bit altruistic nor is anyone I know! I serve because it fills the gaping God-ordained hole in my soul.
8. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) This is true.
9. Without hope there is no reason to live.
Debbie McLeod Sears ’09 M.Div., based in Houston, is currently director of Grant Me The Wisdom Fund.
1 Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Knopf, 2009), pp. xvii, 171, 192, 238. The authors argue that educating girls delays marriage and lessens the number of children women have, but the corollary is not true for boys. Women tend to use any extra money on education or business whereas men spend 20 percent of their income on “a combination of alcohol, prostitutes, candy, sugary drinks, and lavish feasts rather than on educating their children.” Another byproduct of female education is national stability.