Monday, February 11, 2013

Service (And How Liberia Views It)

“That's okay, I can do it myself.”

How many times have I said that one? More than you'd think. Most of the time I say it when I'm trying to do some form of work. If I'm washing my own dish, washing the car, painting a basketball backboard, drawing a bucket of water from the well, etc., at some point some Liberian, such as the security guard on duty, will come up to me and say, “Oh, Jake, I can help you with that,” or “I can do it for you”.

Needless to say, I'm an American born and bred and I don't particularly like having people do things for me, so I reply with, “That's okay, I can do it myself.”

An old picture of our well
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to keep people from doing things for me. “I can do it myself” isn't an anti-service thing. But really, doing such things myself is counter-cultural.

There's this underlying mindset of “service” in Liberian culture when it comes to menial labor. The lower you are on the ladder of success and prestige, the more menial labor you have to do.  Such as drawing water from the well.  So when a white person (like myself) comes into the country, no Liberian wants to let the “boss man” get his hands dirty and do actual work.

One Tuesday we were having a teen Bible study with some local Liberians just out of school. At one point I was trying to explain in a relevant way the significance of the fact that Jesus washed his disciples' feet. They had heard it before, of course; they knew Bible stories from church, but oftentimes Liberian teens don't grasp the meaning behind the stories.

So here's what I said:

“Say that Ma Ellen” - (that's the president of Liberia, by the way) - “is coming into the compound.” I gestured to the rusty gate to our concrete-block fence. “She gets out of her car and says hello. Then she says this: 'Oh, I see your feet are very dirty. Let me wash them for you.' And then she gets down on her hands and knees and washes your feet.”

At this, their eyes flew wide and they shouted, “No, no! You can't do that!” Evidently I had succeeded, and the message got through to them: Jesus' act was completely counter-cultural and crazy. Nobody as high and important as President Ellen would stoop as far as to wash someone else's feet. It's crazy!

But like I said, it's deeply embedded in the culture. When outsiders come in, this is what they see. They often say, “Wow, how generous these Africans are! They're always serving others.” And this is true. When Christ has changed a Liberian's life, it's beautiful to see. They're unselfish, generous, and serving.

But too often good things can be twisted. Service is an important part of Liberian culture, but it's the wrong kind of service.

The service Christ calls us to is inherently democratic. One person is not better than the other. Democracy was born when Paul said, “All are one in Christ Jesus.” The kind of service the Christian is called to is where one person serves the other because all are equal. It is love-motivated service. But the Liberian kind of “service” turns this truth around: Liberian service is where one person serves the other because all are unequal. The Liberian serves the boss-man because he's the boss-man, not because he wants to serve. But the boss-man doesn't serve him. Yet this is exactly what Christ calls us to – to serve one another regardless of who that “other” is.

Christian service is out of love. But Liberian “service” is often out of selfishness. I had one of our security guards tell me that “the Liberian love office job”. Why? Because it involves no menial labor. They only work so that they can get to the point where they don't have to work.

Yet Christ says the exact opposite. The last shall be first – completely counter to everything in this culture, where everything is a race to be “first”.

But if this country can regain this kind of Christian service, this real service, it will be transformed. And I think that the best way to start is to serve.

That's why I say “I can do it myself.” Because the white man can work too. I'm not higher than anyone else. So I'll wash my own dish; and other people's dishes too. I'll draw my own shower bucket, and my dad's shower bucket too. Change has to start small before it can grow big.

And maybe we can turn self-service in to self-sacrificing service.


  1. Especially when service is done in love. Very tired at the moment---but wanted to encourage you to live on and live out your parables. Use the culture as a fulcrum, and the Gospel as a lever. O:) You might join some other fellows in "turning the world upside down."

  2. Awesome post. Such a reminder. I was in Youth Group last year and on the last day the leaders said they were going to wash our feet. I freaked, because I had spent all day at a dusty baseball field in sandals. It was really humbling for me for them to wash my feet...just because we do hold people higher than others. Something in our mind seems to revolt when we see someone "higher" do something "lowly". That's why it is so strange to imagine Jesus Christ--the savior of the world--washing his disciples' feet.

    Something to chew on for sure.

    Oh and thanks for opening it up for me to comment! :-)

  3. are such a joy to know.
    i know that your mom and dad are so proud of you! i just wanted to remind you again.
    you are wise beyond your years. you are so gifted! What blessings you have been given from God!