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A Habitat story of “holy discontent”

By Jonathan Reckford, Habitat for Humanity International CEO

I was on my knees with an automatic rifle to my head having been accused of hiding a pistol.

Several women had been dragged away from the group, causing us all to fear for what might happen to them. Taken away to be interrogated alone, I was pushed around by guards who barked orders I did not understand and forced to fill out legal forms in a language I did not know. Unlike some others in the group, I had no ID and no cash in a situation where you needed bribe money for everything. I was expected to barter for things as simple as a food bowl with the few possessions I did have.

These events were all part of a simulation exercise I participated in during the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It was designed to help people better understand what it is like to be a refugee in a border camp. On the one hand, I knew the whole time this was a simulation, and I have been a part of events like this before. However, because this simulation was carried out so well, I felt like I understood in a small way the feelings of powerlessness, fear, panic and desperation that refugees likely face each day.

I began to think about how important it is for Habitat for Humanity to help people truly understand what it is like to be one of the 1.6 billion people around the world who are inadequately sheltered. How does one really survive on less than $2 a day as many in the developing world do?

Some of our young adult supporters have staged cardboard box cities and slept outside for a night or more to draw attention to the need for adequate shelter. Other people have organized meals and various simulations to raise funds and awareness. They were attempting to help people connect with circumstances that are completely unfamiliar.

I have seen living conditions in many parts of the world that would break your heart. Part of me wishes that more people could see firsthand what I have witnessed. Sometimes it takes what Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area, calls “holy discontent” to get people to take action.

Often when people watch a terrible event on television, they shake their heads, say that someone ought to do something, and then change the channel. Some don’t respond well to being confronted with pain and suffering. Others feel manipulated and want to shut out anything troubling.

Holy discontent is when you watch the same event and it wrecks you. It is when God seizes you by the scruff of the neck and gives you such a sense of urgency that you have to respond.

That is the kind of Habitat story we want to tell — not because we want to force people into action out of guilt, but because we have to connect. When we touch people deeply and when they experience a new reality — that is the moment when they are moved to act, to shift out of their comfort zones and give of their time, their talent and their treasure.

No one should face the fear I glimpsed during the border camp simulation, and no one should know the insecurity of desperate housing conditions. What Habitat story will you help us create today? How will you help create a holy discontent that helps more families break the cycle of poverty?


Beth Sterrett wrote:

Thank you for this. What you term "holy discontent" is something that has set me apart from my peers for many years. It goes by other names: "maturity in Christ," or simply "seeing the light." While it has never earned any derision or disrespect, rarely have I gotten support for working with Habitat or any other charity. It is always "that thing Beth does."

So, in answer to your question, one I have pondered often, perhaps we can look to others who have changed the way people think: Ghandi, Martin Luther King, even Mother Teresa. They lived their quiet lives loudly. Did their work, walked their talks, and changed lives one at a time. When it came to injustice, they stood their moral ground and refused to be squashed into a small mind. There were no tantrums, no shouting, stomping, or violence, just a steady, sturdy pace on the high road.

So, when I "spend my vacation working," as my friends call it, I show them the family I served and the home they currently live in, and talk joyfully about what a blessing it is to be able to right that wrong. I share that sense of holy discontent with my audience and try to bring the reality of the world to a brilliance such that they cannot change the channel and perhaps will be driven to act.

It is indeed slow work to make that connection that you pointed out is needed, but we must try. Every person we talk to has the potential to bring adequate shelter to a family, but if we never reach out, no one will be helped.

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