The following is my first draft of an original oratory speech about "problems." It's long, I know...
This past summer, I spent a week of my time in the city of Los Angeles. I was there with a group of teenagers from my church working with an international organization called World Impact. We spent our week in a variety of activities: we helped out at a church hosting a vacation Bible school for the children in the area; we went to the homes of local missionaries and babysat their kids so the adults could have a date night; we made breakfast at a homeless shelter; we slept in the city of Watts and walked the streets of Compton. But there was one day that stood out to me in particular. Our first Monday morning we went walking around downtown Los Angeles. We rode buses and the Metro rail; we saw the garment district and the Cake Building. And then we went down San Pedro Ave. where I saw something I had never seen before. We were right around the corner from Skid Row – and there were hundreds of homeless people everywhere. They came up and just started talking to us about nothing and we just sort of nodded and listened and gave them our sandwiches. It really felt like there was nothing we could do to actually help. Clearly, there is a problem here. There is a ton of homeless people in the city of Los Angeles alone and something needs to be done about it. And homelessness is not the world’s only problem… there are millions of other problems. Today, when Americans look at the world and see its “major” problems like AIDS, slavery, human trafficking, and homelessness, we try to decide which way is the quickest way to find a solution to eradicate all of these issues. But this is not the right approach. There is a new way in which we have to approach these large-scale tragedies.
Internationally, one of the biggest problems that we continually hear of is the AIDS epidemic. So we’re forced to ask… is it really a problem? The answer: yes. Yes, AIDS really is a problem. AIDS was first recognized in 1981, and since then has killed more than twenty-five million people – and continues to kill about ten people every hour – one of the most destructive epidemics in recorded history. In the world right now, it is estimated that over forty-five million people live with HIV. That is a lot Not to mention that every single day more people contract this fatal disease. Many people, Americans in particular, look at this case and aren’t affected much by it. And who can blame them? It’s easy to be nonchalant about this sort of thing when less than one percent of the United States’ population is actually going to die from it. Your way of thinking might change somewhere else. For example, when you live in a country such as Swaziland where over thirty-three percent of its one million inhabitants have AIDS, this topic is slightly more concerning. In Swaziland, one of every three people will probably die within ten years. And you thought the number of cigarette deaths were scary.
Oh, but don’t worry. There are plenty of other problems around the world – and some don’t even directly involve death and disease. They’re more involved with scamming, kidnapping, forced labor, and abuse. I’m talking about the thirty million humans around the world that are slaves. Depending who you trust though, some sources will stretch that number to two hundred million people worldwide. That’s alarming. And yes, by the way, I do mean slaves. But I’m not talking about what you’re probably thinking. If you’re imagining a black family paid for by a plantation owner who gets a few meals a day and has to pick cotton while getting whipped, congratulations: you’re still understating the situation like a true American. No – I’m talking about slavery that takes place all over the world as a business practice where business owners travel to different countries and approach families with little to no money and promise them a better life working somewhere new. Most families, already as close to nothingness as possible, jump at the chance, and are literally carted off to a country that they have never heard of before, separated from their families, and participate in harsh forced labor for the rest of their lives. In fact you may very well be wearing clothing right now that was made by one of these slaves – if it’s from JC Penny or Nike for a couple quick examples. But the clothing industry is only a microscopic part of human slavery. Some people are tricked into believing that they can sell other members of their family for both money and a better life for that person. This however never happens. Men will sell their wives and children having no idea that they will never see them again. And the other money making schemes these people are put in are far worse than sweatshops. Many are sold into prostitution and sex trafficking, especially women and minors. Over six hundred thousand people are trafficked each year – about eighty percent women, and over fifty percent minors. You do the math and figure out where they’re going. It’s a horrible and sickening reality that we live in.
On a more familiar note, there are around seventy thousand homeless people… in the city of Los Angeles. There are thousands and thousands more in the United States, and overseas there are entire nations that we would consider homeless. In LA, over forty-one percent of them were employed a year ago. And about a quarter of them have a drug addiction. For me personally at least, this issue strikes a deeper chord only because I’ve seen it firsthand, I’ve talked to these people – I’ve shaken their hands. And there’s something about Skid Row that just scares me to death… and I think it has something to do with our response to it all… not as Americans, as humans. How can we allow these sorts of things to plague our brothers and sisters? This is the question I ask of you.
With AIDS, we have an attitude that tells us we won’t be able to fix it – so we give up. More Americans than I would personally like to believe know the reality of the situation. The disease is spreading like a wildfire and the only ways for it to really go away are not realistic: one, we find a medical solution – but that’s too costly, too hard, and we’re already trying to do that anyway; two, anyone with the disease has to discontinue all sexual behavior – but that’s too difficult to enforce, many people with HIV are unaware that they have it, and let’s face it – how do you keep people from having sex? You don’t; and three, we let everyone with AIDS die off – but that’s inhumane and cruel. As you can see, this is an extremely complex problem.
And slavery and human trafficking have the same problems. When you look at it, the problem is really too big to fix – or it’s just virtually impossible. And homelessness is the same thing. These are problems that if taken literally, cannot be eradicated. They will always be a part of life.
So what do we do? We have these astronomic gaping devastations in our nation and in our world, and we know that they will never be fixed. Most people stop there. And that’s the problem. Americans in particular are guilty of this mindset. We look at an unfixable problem and decide that we’re screwed and stop there. Here’s what I want to know: how do we go to sleep at night?
In her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee writes, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Do we really have to solve every problem to help our fellow man? No, we don’t. I think we just think we do and use that argument as an excuse because let’s face it: helping other people is an inconvenience. It costs time and energy. And if the problem doesn’t affect me, then why should I have to be a part of the solution. Well that’s just it, isn’t it? These sorts of things should affect you. Maybe not financially or practically… but human abuse should stir something in our hearts. It would if it was your kids being sold into slavery. It would if your mom contracted HIV. It would if you lost your job. Our problem is that we make sure we don’t see things from other people’s points of view. We don’t “climb into their skin.” Well, maybe we should.
Let’s look at the ways we approach these problems currently in the world. AIDS: we send money to organizations, we buy Bono’s newest book or CD, the government drops packages of condoms out of helicopters. Wow – what a difference we’re making. Human trafficking: our super-efficient government has passed law after law illegalizing child labor and slavery both in the United States and internationally, but doesn’t really enforce them. Good for us. And homelessness: well, again, the government has been implementing our flawless welfare system for years – so what am I saying? That problem has nearly disappeared.
It probably sounds like I’m attacking the government. But I’m not… well, okay. Maybe I am a little. But there’s someone else to blame. You may have noticed that American citizens – you and I – are doing a lot less than our governments. I’m not saying you as an individual, but many of us Americans are sitting in front of our televisions hearing about these problems on the four o’clock “Oh, but I gave twenty dollars to a homeless man last week.” Then why is it that I am constantly hearing stories about “this one bum that took my money to a 7-11 and bought alcohol – so I don’t give them money anymore.” You’re just looking out for their health, right? No. You’re making an excuse so that you don’t have to sacrifice anything of yourself to help someone else. Who cares what he does with your money? Does five dollars really hurt your personal economic stability? Our excuses are prioritized over people. That’s a problem too.
So do you want to make a difference? Do you want to change something? I won’t just be an Al Gore who tells you we’re screwed, walks off the stage, and gets the Nobel Peace Prize. Here’s where you start: put yourself in the perspective of other people. Climb into their skin and walk around in it. When AIDS is an issue, remember that sending condoms doesn’t help people who believe that having sex with a virgin will cure them. You have to understand their culture and their ways of thinking before you can help them. And the same principle goes for human trafficking and slavery and homelessness. What is it that drives these merchants to sell people? Why is this person homeless? What is their story? Don’t generalize. Don’t stereotype. Climb into their skin and walk around in it. Then maybe – just maybe – we will start to see the world as it is, have a heart for the broken, and take a step in the right direction to change it for the better.