Box? What Box?

Lately I’ve been excited to see lots of people finding ways to love their neighbor in powerfully unique ways. For example, this week my wife, The Lovely Sue, told me about a coworker, Mark, who goes to Saddleback Church—you know, the one Rick Warren started. Mark is involved in a program over there called P.E.A.C.E. That stands for: P – Plant new churches. E – Equip servant leaders. A – Assist the poor. C – Care for the sick. E – Educate the next generation. Their focus right now is Rwanda. Sounds like standard missions stuff, right? But they’ve taken it way outside the box with one simple idea.

Every time they send a small group on a missions trip, that group is tasked with (among other things) identifying a serious, practical need among the people that they meet. It might be a failed water well. It might be a collapsed foot bridge. The team comes home to southern California, tells the church about it, and then another team is sent fully prepared with a plan, hand-picked skills and all the resources needed to drill a new well or build a new bridge. And here’s the brilliant part: while they’re drilling wells and building bridges, they’re also looking for the next need, which they return to tell the folks in California about, who then equip another team to go and do the same, in a self-perpetuating way that goes on and on and on solving one desperate problem after another. With this simple idea these people can now deal with a specific well that needs drilling in a specific tiny village in the middle of nowhere on the far side of the world.

To imagine what it must be like for the poor of Rwanda when these Californians arrive, visualize a mechanic knocking on your door and saying, “Hi, I’m Sven from Norway, and I heard about your car’s dead battery so I thought I’d fly over to replace it for you.”

Except we’re not talking dead batteries. We’re talking life and death problems…solved. And these Christians just keep showing up with solutions. All it took was one person to connect a church with Saddleback’s city-sized resources to one simple, imminently practical idea. And this is just one example of people ignoring the box to make a real difference. You want another?

Chances are you’ve never heard of the Digital Bible Society, but they are unsung heroes who have quietly made it possible for anyone in China to receive a Bible. Four Bibles, actually. Plus 175 commentaries, dictionaries and other study tools. In traditional Chinese, or simplified Chinese. With interlinked video dramatizing key Biblical stories. Absolutely free. But that's not the amazing part.

In years past, D.B.S. arranged for these Bibles to be smuggled into China by missionaries. The risk involved becomes clear when you realize that those versions on CD came complete with a special program that deleted all traces from the user’s computer every time the software was shut down. With the advent of the Internet in China, and a slightly less oppressive attitude toward Christianity (at least until the Beijing Summer Olympics are over in 2008) D.B.S. is now focused on downloads straight from the Web. But here’s the fascinating thing: all of this was done on a volunteer basis by a handful of middle class people, programmers mainly, who live near Houston, Texas, had no connections with Chinese missions work before founding this ministry (or with any other missions work except through their own churches) and not one of these people is Asian, or speaks one word of Chinese!
When one of their contacts in China realized to his astonishment who had created and delivered the Bibles and theological library now spreading throughout his country he said, “I know some fools that God is using!”

And in a further demonstration of their foolish refusal to admit there is a box, D.B.S. is now working on the same thing in Russian and Arabic.

Want another example? Check out this story in the current edition of Smithsonian magazine. Jimmy Carter is fighting malaria over in Ethiopia. Of course it’s not exactly news that the President Carter is a social action activist and advocate for the poor. And since malaria is spread mainly by mosquito bites, it’s not exactly revolutionary that he’s passing out mosquito nets. What caught my attention is the nets themselves. Some unsung hero has figured out a way to weave insecticide right into the fabric, so the deadly mosquitoes are not merely kept away from sleeping Africans, they are killed on contact with the nets! What an ingenious idea, far outside the box, and how marvelous that Jimmy Carter is over there, using it to save lives.

Consider another little idea I saw in a recent New York Times article about an exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt. Unfortunately, you have to have a NYT subscription to view a photo in their archives, but here’s the idea in a nutshell: Every day across the undeveloped world women and children carry water home from streams and ponds. Water weighs more than eight pounds per gallon, and it shifts around when you carry it, making this a grueling task. It is well known that people who carry water containers balanced on their heads (the ancient, traditional way) end up with severe neck and back problems. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a better way? Imagine a plastic drum, filled with 20 gallons of water. That’s well over 160 pounds. Now imagine a hole down through the center of the drum, like a donut. Then flip the drum over on its side in your imagination, slip a rope through the hole in the center, give the rope several feet of slack, loop it around and tie off the ends. Now step into the looped rope, pick it up and start pulling. What do you have? 20 gallons of water rolling along behind you, as easy as pie! Even a child of nine or ten can roll that much water home. This, dear readers, is a flat-out miracle for people who have carried water the same way for a thousand years or more. It is so far out of the box as to leave the box completely behind. Yet it is such a simple idea.

Consider what you know. Your particular set of skills and information are a unique combination, unmatched by anybody, anywhere. Somewhere amongst all the things you’ve learned in life is a solution to a problem that can make life better for a lot of people.

All you have to do—and it’s not easy—is step back from the way you’ve always seen what you know, and see it from the point of view of someone in dire need. As with all difficulties, the way to start is, pray. Ask the Lord to show you how to look at what you know from a whole new paradigm today. Ask Him to show you how to love your neighbor with all of your mind, and see what wonders will occur.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 9:37 AM  


Kelli Standish said... June 7, 2007 at 11:37 AM  

What an absolutely FANTASTIC post, Athol. Thank you for this.

Angela said... June 7, 2007 at 5:31 PM  

Cool stuff, Athol. Makes me wish I were an inventor!


Debra Twardowski said... June 7, 2007 at 8:13 PM  

Wonderful! Thanks for the positive post about Saddleback Church! We need more writers putting out the good word!

Rachel Hauck said... June 8, 2007 at 11:30 AM  

Oh, I love that... love your neighbor with all your MIND.

Great insight!


Anonymous said... June 11, 2007 at 2:50 PM  

One thing missing from your post that you may or may not be aware of is that the P.E.A.C.E. teams are training the local churches they partner with to reproduce whatever is done. For instance in the case of building a well it's about teaching the Rwandans to build it themselves with the materials available to them and for them to teach the next village over and for the next village over to teach it again so that our efforts are not one at a time but rather like a pebble dropped into a pool.
Thank you so much for posting about P.E.A.C.E. Those of us involved are blessed to be part of it.

Mark's teammate

Athol Dickson said... June 11, 2007 at 3:51 PM  

Thanks for the added information, Jana. It's great to know you're "teaching them to fish," as well as "giving them fish," as the old saying goes. Combined with that other thing you're doing--getting local information and then returning to respond to it in a feed-back loop kind of way--you're taking short term missions work to a whole new level.

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