I’ll Take My Chances
In 1982, Mother Teresa was invited to Beirut in the middle of the worst part of the war between Israel and Lebanon – the Siege of Beirut. Her immediate visit was to a hospital for retarded and handicapped children where at least 10 had been killed by repeated mortar attacks. Reporters and veteran aid workers were skeptical and at first, many thought it was either a vain gesture or misguided idealism on her part. However, Mother Teresa and her nuns entered the Dar al-Ajaza al-Islamia Mental Hospital and carried out 37 of the most deformed and retarded children: “I have never been in a war before, but I have seen famine and death. I was asking myself, what do they feel when they do this. I don’t understand it. They are all the children of God. Why do they do it, I don’t understand.”
Last week when I read the USA Today report on students at the Passion conference in Atlanta raising almost $1 million to build a hospital in Northern Syria, I confess I had the same response as the reporters and aid workers in Beirut. I had just read several articles on the horrific damage done to hospitals by Russian air strikes in Northern Syria as well as the intentional targeting of hospitals and volunteers of Doctors Without Borders. I could not imagine a riskier investment. Why build a hospital that is certainly doomed from the start? Why encourage 40,000 impressionable young Christians to make such an idealistic but misguided gesture? In the past, Passion has raised millions of dollars for anti-trafficking ministries like International Justice Mission. Why not find other causes with more hope of success – like eliminating poverty or malaria or hunger?
I’ve thought about this all week, and the larger question for me is not about building a hospital but about the validity of “in the moment” giving that raises substantial amounts of money. Does it do more harm than good? Are we encouraging an emotional “outpouring” that allows millennials in stadium-size crowds to have a momentary surge of doing something good but with no further thought? Scores of articles have been written in the last few years on the neuroscience of giving, and while it is true that the release of chemicals in the brain makes spontaneous giving a pleasurable experience – for the moment – is that what we want to encourage? Do we want a “rush” of momentary generosity?
I don’t think so…but I also believe there is a time and place for it. Had I – and some of my more rational peers – been in charge of the event we might have passed out studies, proposals for funding, and plans for evaluation before asking the crowd to consider the possibility of a small planning grant. Of course, their decision would have to be approved by a committee, and that would only take a few months before their writing a check with the attached memorandum of understanding. The last thing we would want would be getting caught up in the emotion of the moment and circumvent all the rules of good grant making.
However, I have come gradually to believe Passion has discovered and turned toward good something important and counterintuitive about millennials. In a recent piece, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote, “Millennials have extremely low social trust. According to Pew Research, just 19 percent say most people can be trusted compared with 40 percent of boomers.” As well, they feel detached from large entities and are suspicious of organized religion. “The general impression one gets is of a generation that is stressed, energetic, creative, skeptical and in the middle of redefining, and thinning out, the nature of affiliation. Its members have been thrust into a harsher world where it is necessary to be guarded, and sensitive to risk. They want systemic change but there is no compelling form of collective action available. Their only alternative, which is their genius, is to try to fix their lives themselves, through technology and new forms of social interaction, rather than mass movements.”
Louie Giglio and Passion have turned that on its head. Over decades of ministry they have created social trust and attracted tens of thousands of millennials in spite of their skepticism of organized religion. They have been encouraged to attach themselves and been given a compelling form of collective action that multiplies and extends their individual efforts. In doing so, the ripple effect has been $19 million given to more than 100 projects in the last several years. In some ways, what they have done is closer to the Biblical description of the “cheerful giver” than what many of us experience in our genuine desire to be good stewards.
There is a place for both, and while there is always the danger that emotions can be manipulated, there is just as much threat that undue skepticism and risk aversion can rob of us of the joy of doing something spontaneous and heartfelt. I’ll take my chances.
By the way, the hospital, while still not a risk-free project, is under the umbrella of World Vision, and they are taking every precaution possible to make sure the money raised is used to relieve the suffering of Syrian children and families. If you want to know more, you can visit Project Haraka.