Last April, when I was speaking at UC Berkeley Law, one of the students asked why we are providing scholarships for students in other countries, when there are many students in the U.S. that could benefit from additional support. It is a variation of the broader question that I have heard more often than any other over the past 20 years: Why should we focus on meeting needs internationally, when there are needs closer to home?
When we set up the question as an either/or proposition, we are asking the wrong question. No one person is of greater or lesser importance than any other. We must work together to reach out to people both locally and globally, for one simple reason:
Love requires nothing less.
We should start closest to home, with our immediate family. Mother Teresa once said, “The way you help heal the world is that you start with your own family.” It is usually easier to love people far away than those we have the most intimate relationships with. But we learn how to love, serve, forgive, and empower others by practicing in our immediate family.
That is where our efforts begin, not where they end. Our next sphere of influence are those in our community whom we are directly connected with. In this context, acts of service and kindness are particularly meaningful, because the people we are in direct relationship with can see through our actions that we value them, care about them, and love them.
Beyond those that we have direct connections with, there is no meaningful distinction between those we don’t know personally elsewhere in our own country and those we don’t know personally in other parts of the world. They are equally part of our extended human family, and they are equally worthy of our love, our hearts, and our attention.
The question, "Who should I help?" is as old as humanity. Most people have heard of the story of the Good Samaritan, which goes back about 2,000 years. What is sometimes overlooked is that (1) the entire story flows from the question, "Who should I love?" and (2) one of the most important directives of the story is to extend our kindness beyond our own country and homeland.
As recorded in the Christian Gospel of Luke, a lawyer was discussing with Jesus the commandment of the Torah that we should "love your neighbor as yourself.” When the lawyer asks, "Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with the story of the Good Samaritan. In this illustration, a Samaritan finds a stranger in need, lying on the side of a road between Jericho and Jerusalem, and then goes to great lengths to care for him. The backdrop of the story is that there were strong divisions between the Jewish people and the Samaritans during that period of history, who lived in the adjacent regions of Judea and Samaria.
The point of the story is that the people we are called to love and care for include the “stranger”—those whom we have never met previously—and those of different backgrounds, religions, and ethnicities. Notably, the Good Samaritan was traveling in Judea, outside of his homeland, when he rendered the aid. And Jesus ended his story with the directive, "Go and do likewise."
I find no basis, in my personal faith or value system, to focus on helping the “stranger” who is closer to home in favor of the "stranger" that is geographically further away. The call to love others has no bounds. Once I move beyond my immediate family and those that I have direct relationship with in my community, I feel compelled to reach out to those who are the most in need, the most vulnerable, the most marginalized, and the most disadvantaged, no matter where they might be.
This rationale has led me to other parts of the world: places where the needs are greater in depth and in scope, where the local resources available to meet those needs are more inadequate, and where our own resources can be stretched further. When I have viewed and valued every human being equally—regardless of nationality, race, religion, or people group—that is where love has taken me.
There are many ways in which to measure poverty, but if we were to look at the Human Development Index produced by the UNDP, the United States is in the top 10 countries globally, whereas Nicaragua, the Philippines, and India rank between 116 and 132 (“medium” human development). The following map, published by Gallup, provides a good visual for where extreme poverty is more prevalent in the world today:
Anecdotally, my personal experiences have given life to these statistics. In the Philippines, for example, I have known children who were kept in jail for no reason other than the fact that the police could not locate anyone who would care for them if released. In India, I have visited orphanages where the best-case scenario for each of the girls aging-out at 18 is an arranged marriage. In Senegal, I met hundreds of "talibe" street children who were owned by their marabout, forced to beg every day on the streets as part of their religious discipleship.
Moreover, it is indisputable that our resources accomplish more in other parts of the world. In Nicaragua and in the Philippines, for example, the complete living and educational expenses of a college student averages only $150 per month. In the U.S., the costs are substantially higher. I can support about 20 college students abroad for the same cost that I have paid for a single student in the U.S.
No one is denying that significant needs exist—and by many measures, are increasing—here in the U.S., especially within certain communities. But to turn back to my original point, if we pose the issue of "where should we focus on helping others?" as an either/or question, we are framing the issue incorrectly.
An exclusive focus on the needs within our own country, to the exclusion of needs abroad, is one that fails to equally view and value humanity. A balanced approach is one in which we collectively aim to serve the human community both domestically and abroad, empowering people wherever needs exist and injustice persists.
To accomplish this, we cannot all focus our efforts in the same place. Some organizations and donors will focus their efforts in the U.S. while others focus their efforts abroad. I have explained what drives my personal focus on the international community. But we must value our respective efforts and work collaboratively, because we are working toward common and complimentary goals.
If we aspire to a world in which people are equally valued and have equal opportunities, then we must be intentional about serving and loving others both locally and globally. And our actions only reflect our ideals when we do so irrespective of national, ethnic, and other boundaries, valuing humankind equally both at home and abroad.