Intentional or Accidental?

Good afternoon from Westminster, MD!

How did we all get here? An age old question with more answers than I could possibly list here. Where you stand often comes down to whether or not you think we were created with intention or formed through a cosmic accident. I believe this question of hope and the lack thereof in our world today speaks to the reality of a creator.

I know that the idea that there is a creator is controversial, but it is hard to deny that there seems to be a created order. Realities such as poverty and hopelessness pull at the fabric of this created order and make us feel uncomfortable. Some people choose to dismiss this feeling as guilt for their own fortune, but I tend to believe that is a form of denial. Hopelessness and brokenness make us feel uncomfortable because they were never meant to exist. This is why we, the created, can look at a situation and know that something is not right. Consequently, it is also why we are so disturbed by people that seem to lack the innate ability to tell right from wrong at the most basic level.

Creation in its original form was meant to be in a state of what Judaism calls “Shalom”, or nothing missing, nothing broken. To say it another way, the world was created “very good” as it suggests in the book of Genesis from the Hebrew Bible. This perfect state was interrupted when the creations decided to walk away from their gracious creator. The Creator, God, gave his prized creation, humankind, free will and, therefore, the ability to walk away from him and live based on their own desires.

Unfortunately, the created decided that it knew best and took advantage of the Creator’s trust and love. Much like a parent with a wayward child, God allowed humankind to make its own choices and live with the consequences. Not surprisingly, the created was not very good at making the right choices to follow the created order and has been suffering from the results ever since.

We live in a fallen world of our own creation and sense this fallenness on a daily basis, especially when it comes to our tangible world. Our sense that we live in a fallen world is a primary contributor to our hopelessness. We wonder if this fallenness that is can ever change.

The good news is there is hope. We sense this as well. More on this next time.

– James Belt


Where Does This Lead?

Good afternoon from Westminster, MD!

Last time we ended with the question, “Where does this lead?” Where do the realities created by extreme poverty and the insecurity of basic resources lead for people like Gladys in places like Nicaragua?

Well, I am not sure it always leads to the same place and, in fact, I am quite sure the answer is “it depends”. However, I do know one path, possibly the most common of the many, is a certain level of hopelessness. While the practical, tangible “things” of life do not provide meaning and hope, the inability to access the most basic forms of them can create a bleak outlook on life. Instead of dreaming of a better future, “this is how it will always be” becomes the pervasive attitude. This worldview gets passed on from generation to generation until it creates what is almost an informal caste system based on a lack of hope. Hopelessness abounds, and so do its byproducts.

This is not just a Nicaragua problem. Many communities in the United States, especially in inner city neighborhoods, struggle with this generational issue. The truth is you can find this sad reality in all corners of our world.

It would be easy for the “most fortunate” of us to dismiss these places as having been dealt a bad hand and not “our” problem. Many sadly do. However, even if one does not care about the impoverished among us, the impact of hopelessness unavoidably becomes a societal issue. Hopelessness creates a sense of “haves and have nots” that leads to separation, avoidance, and ignorance on all sides.

I tend to believe that most people do not fall in the “I don’t care” category but rather in the “I don’t know what to do” category. It is not so much that they do not want to be a part of finding a solution, it is that the problem seems so big that they avoid it in an effort to not feel hopeless themselves. Whether intentional or not, hopelessness created by “tangible poverty”, a lack of basic practical needs, cannot be ignored without consequences.

In the end, I think we all, or at least most of us, innately feel that there is something wrong with this situation. This is because the world was not created to work this way.

More on that next time!

– James Belt

Survival Mode

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

How does a lack of access to basic practical needs impact your ability to learn and dream about the future? That was the question we left off with last time. What is the answer?

In my experience it makes it very challenging and complicated. In El Canon, the small community in which I met Gladys of hot dog lunch fame, reaching the Fourth Grade is considered an accomplishment. Typically, by this time children have been enlisted in the search for survival. Think about it- if your child cannot eat, why would school take a higher priority? If you are hungry, how does obtaining an education solve this immediate need? The short answer is it does not. This, of course, just restarts the cycle of intergenerational extreme poverty.

The other issue is that learning becomes very difficult in survival mode. Specifically, a lack of basic nutrients starves the brain of what it needs to develop properly and learn. The need to constantly find a solution for the absence of basic needs leaves little patience, and/or ability to think critically and concentrate on future-focused opportunities such as an education or skills training. Again, why prepare for the future if you are not even sure it will exist?

This propensity to only consider immediate needs really changes the way a person interacts with society, as well as the society itself. Instead of considering how actions will impact society as a whole, a “survival of the fittest” attitude takes over. In my experience, this does not just affect the poorest of a society, but rather becomes the general viewpoint of many in the society. I could give example after example of this, but I will stick with Gladys.

Gladys, the hotdog collector, took more than her fair share of hot dogs. As an outsider this seems insensitive, and even greedy. However, if you put yourself in Gladys’ shoes, you can see how your perspective would change. If I do not take five or six hot dogs, someone else will. When “survival of the fittest” becomes the standard operating procedure in a community or society, the wellbeing of others becomes secondary because there is little choice. Sure, someone could be completely selfless, and many amazingly are, but that is rarely the default-mode of the human heart. Instead, we usually think, “I will consider my ‘neighbor’ once I know that I have enough to take care of myself and the ones I love. This is Gladys’ reality and it would be difficult to judge her for trying to stay alive.

Where does this lead? We will consider that next time.

– James Belt

Lessons from Gladys

Good afternoon from Westminster, MD!

Gladys, was and is still famous among the many people from Crossroads Community Church who have traveled to Nicaragua on mission trips. In fact, I think it would be accurate to say that many of these people would tell you that you have not been to Nicaragua until you meet Gladys. Gladys always comes up as people recount their trip to Nicaragua to family and friends, the stories always full of what can only be described as chuckles of joy. The stories I heard about Gladys before going to Nicaragua were great, but nothing compared to being in her presence during the hot dog lunch.

As I had been warned, and would come to find out on a firsthand basis, the pockets in Gladys’ dress were more functional than stylish, and Gladys made good use of them. From what I could count, Gladys must have had at least five or six dogs in the many pockets covering her dress, and she was still coming back for more! Gladys was going to take home as many hot dogs as she could get her hands on, and fit into her very convenient pockets.

I still smile when I recount that story. However, I am also reminded of how important the basic, practical needs are to us as human beings. Gladys was not intentionally being greedy or gluttonous, she was just trying to survive. When the basic, practical needs such as food are scarce, humans will do almost anything to get them. Gladys was no exception. For the entirety of her life, Gladys has not known from where she would get her next meal. If someone was providing an opportunity to not have to worry about that, she was taking advantage of it. Gladys did not have the option of “avoiding” hot dogs like I do. Hot dogs are food, and Gladys was truly hungry.

Having the most basic, practical needs met is vital to life. When these tangible needs are lacking it affects a person’s entire life and their outlook on the future. An inability to readily find sustenance, shelter, healthcare, and other basic needs leads to a short-term, survivalist mentality- “I have to find these things before I can worry about anything else.” Among other issues, this takes an incredible amount of time, especially in poor communities in places like Nicaragua where infrastructure is lacking. If it takes the entire day to find, or maybe just unsuccessfully look for, these basic, practical needs, when is there time to do anything else such as learn or dream about the future?

More on what the answer to this question means next time.

– James Belt


“First” Hotdogs

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Following the first church service I attended in El Canon, the team I was with from my church began to prepare for a community hotdog lunch, a tradition the team had started the year before. I would later learn that the “hotdog lunch service” was the most well attended service of the year at this small church in a forgotten canyon on the outskirts of Managua.

A line of hungry people is a great place to study the human condition. No matter the age group, you can almost always find the full spectrum of character traits- patience, greed, thankfulness, frustration, and selfishness to name a few. Our particular line contained people from every age group, family structure, and, of course, character make-up. One might say it was an anthropologist’s dream.

When the line began to move and we started serving hotdogs to what appeared to be a very hungry group of people, something interesting began to develop. Instead of scarfing the hotdogs down like I typically do when I am hungry, many of the people wrapped them up with whatever they could find so that they could take them home. This also lead to many “repeat customers” in the line seeking their “first” hotdog. Some of the people were a little more strategic, sending their kids instead going through the line again personally. I am not sure if you have ever tried to say no to a small child staring up at you with open hands, but it is really hard, if not impossible. Let’s just say many kids ended up with three or four “first” hotdogs.

However, even more than the children, one person sticks out in my mind more than anyone else, Gladys. Gladys, probably in her late sixties but with the appearance of someone in their eighties due to the effects of poverty, is the definition of a little old lady. “Towering” at what can be no more than 4′ 10″, Gladys always came to church with more barrettes in her hair than what seems humanly possible, and a dress with more pockets than what can be counted. Despite her small stature, Gladys is very bold and a go-getter. This would be demonstrated many times over the years that followed, but probably never more than at the hotdog lunch.

The lesson Gladys taught me that day influence me even today. More on that next time.

– James Belt

The Other Canyon

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Hotdogs- they have never struck me as more than a food of convenience. I have eaten my fair share of them over the years, but I have never gone somewhere because of them. In fact, I have often tried to avoid this mystery meat with the exception of backyard cookouts. However, I would come to understand that I have never truly been hungry.

El Cañon is a place that is unknown to most of the world, Nicaragua included. When referring to this small community, most Nicaraguans assume I mean El Cañon de Somoto, a much more well known canyon in the northern region of Nicaragua. After explaining that it is a small community on the outskirts of Managua they are quite surprised. More often then not, people do not know that a community exists in this canyon off of the South Highway.

The obscurity of El Cañon is not limited to its physical location. A community created in the midst of a coffee farm following the Sandinista Revolution in 1979, El Cañon is a picture of intergenerational extreme poverty juxtaposed with the wealth center of a country.

High unemployment rates, rampant teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, and makeshift homes are just a few of the obvious signs of poverty in El Cañon. Unfortunately, this is not a unique description in Nicaragua. El Cañon is one of many communities suffering from the effects of intergenerational extreme poverty. In some ways El Cañon is better off than other communities I have come to know in Nicaragua.

Being poor is one thing. Being poor and overlooked is an entirely different story, and sadly the story of many impoverished communities in the world. El Cañon and many other poor communities in Nicaragua have not escaped this reality. There are many reasons for this, but in the end the results are the same- the rest of the world keeps moving forward while the people of these impoverished communities continue the cycle of brokenness and suffering. Ignored by the rest of the world, places like El Cañon remain the clearest picture of hopelessness.

It is in the middle of this brokenness that I learned that a hotdog is more than a hotdog. More on this next time.

– James Belt

We All Need to Eat

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Our need for the most basic tangible items is something that has long been recognized. In 1843, Abraham Maslow proposed his now famous and widely recognized “Hierarchy of Needs”. I do not necessarily ascribe to every aspect of the theory, but it would be very hard to argue with the idea that certain physiological needs are at the most fundamental level of life. It would be hard to even consider our need for anything else without first quenching our need for water, food, and rest.

This is easy to recognize when we look at children. Their world revolves around their need and desire for the satisfaction of their tangible needs. However, our affinity for the tangible does not end when we leave childhood. While this desire can certainly be taken to the extreme, it is innately part of who we are given that we are tangible, living things.

Maslow, of course, was only observing what has been clear since the beginning of time. One only has to read two sentences after God created humankind in the book of Genesis in the Bible to find that he also provided food. In fact, the food was so important God created the sources of food before he created the people who would eat it.

It is easy to take this most basic level of human need for granted living in a First-World, Developed Nation like the United States. However, it probably should not be. While most people living in the United States are more worried about what they are going to have for dinner than whether they will have it at all, there are still many who do not have this luxury.

No matter where you live in the United States, you more than likely live within a thirty minute drive of entire neighborhoods that live in poverty. For many of these people the question of where the next meal will come from is very real. This can have a great impact on a person’s outlook on life.

The reality is this socio-economic divide is a huge issue for our world today. There is much debate as to how we reached this point, and how much worse it actually is now in comparison to the past, but there is no debate about its existence. Two kids might go to the same school, but that does not mean they live the same life with the same opportunities. This gap has many physiological and psychological consequences that has the potential to shape a person’s life.

Growing up in the suburbs of Baltimore, I had some exposure to this reality. This was primarily because of my parents’ willingness to expose me to it in the form of serving with my church. This opened my eyes to the fact that my margin for error when it came to meeting my most basic tangible needs was far greater than that of many other people in this world.

Those moments played an important role in my understanding of how similar we are despite our differences. I realized that I could have easily been on the other side of the serving line at the shelters and meal distribution programs at which I served had my life or the lives of my parents gone differently. Our most basic tangible needs were the same, but our opportunity to fulfill those needs were very different.

Nothing revealed this reality to me more than my first time in Nicaragua. More on that next time.

– James Belt