When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert: a Perspective Shift

Title: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor | Authors: Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert | Genre: Nonfiction | Paperback: 230 pages | Publisher: Moody Publishers (2009) | ISBN: 978-0-8024-5705-9 | Rating: 5/5

My ministry to refugees was hurtful when I began 3 years ago.

Once during my earliest days as an intern on the field, I stopped by a newly settled family’s home to check in. They’d been in the States for just a couple weeks at this point, and the woman told me she needed some tomatoes. That’s what was pressing to her. She needed tomatoes. It could have been worse.

Mostly, she needed a way to get the tomatoes. She had the money, but no car. Wanting to be helpful and meet a need, I drove to the market less than a mile down the road to buy her tomatoes. She stayed home. I think I used my own money to be reimbursed by the agency, since her money was on a card and she didn’t tag along.

I chose the tomatoes, waited in line to purchase, bought them and dropped the tomatoes back off to her within 15 minutes. When I got back to the office, I thought it was strange when my supervisor told me that the woman could get her own tomatoes next time.

Ouch. I thought to myself, “But wait, I thought we were here to help? What’s wrong with buying tomatoes? She’s been through so much, surely just a few tomatoes didn’t hurt that much?”

I’ve watched other leaders serve refugee families on the field better than I did (and still do). I’ve learned from them. And one thing they all have in common: they don’t buy tomatoes for their refugee friends when it could do more harm than good.


When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert has been recommended to me by multiple people in the nonprofit sector.

It didn’t take long once I started reading to learn why this book is revered in this line of work.

When Helping Hurts defines poverty, and then lays a foundational understanding of how to alleviate poverty. The book teaches best practices for long-term poverty alleviation, restoration of human dignity, and propelling leaders into culturally relevant, long-term modules of work.

This book challenged and changed my perspective about poverty. It gave words I didn’t have to describe the hope of my work with refugees. It also gave framework for many of the practices and philosophies I have learned to practice. And yes, it showed me why buying those tomatoes that day wasn’t the best choice.


There were many points to take away from this book, but let me share the top 3.

001: we work to restore human dignity, and yes, it takes a long time.

The point of helping others is not to fix it for them. The point is to seek solutions with them.

Your role is to work together with them. They are called to participate in their own rebuilding. Why? Because there is a sweet reward in allowing someone to accomplish something on their own. We are made to work and be satisfied.

Deep down, no one really loves things to simple be done for us. Actually, we crave the satisfaction of providing for our families and accomplishing tasks ourselves. We are wired this way. This is dignifying and shows us a better way of helping others.

Because of this, there are no quick fixes. One of the stories in the book talks about a church that spent years working to get its feet on the ground in an inner city community. One of the church’s first projects was to build a house. A single house. And it took years.

But by the end of it, you know who was leading the congregation? You know who had grown into the facilitators? The people in the community – those who had originally been helped. They were now leading and working in the church body, growing as individuals and meeting unique needs in their community. It took longer, but the fruit was richer.

002: You might think you have the best idea, but look again.

What works in America won’t work in other countries. Actually, what works in your neighborhood may not work in the neighborhood you are reaching out to. It is so important to recognize the role that culture plays; it affects our entire worldview.

The most powerful thing you can do when stepping into new places is to invite your neighbor into their own rebuilding. Give a voice to the voiceless. Recognize that the very people you are helping have ideas and skills that are perfect for their situation, and the most empowering thing you can do is to point that out to them.

I cringed throughout the book as I came to face to face with my privilege. So many times.

This point is only one way that reared its ugly head. I had to confess that I don’t always have the best ideas, and it’s my responsibility to hear what my refugee neighbors have to say too. They are thinking, living, breathing individuals too. Why should I think my ideas are law? I can’t help but wonder what ideas they’d share if I gave them the voice and listened.

003: I am just as broken as the neighbor I’m helping.

Above all, I am no better than my poor, addicted neighbor.

I am broken too. I’ve got my own wild views of the world and experiences. When we learn to see ourselves on this same level as the people we are helping, it completely changes the way that we approach them. It banishes the idea of “us and them.” It gets rid of my pride to do it for, but to instead rebuild with.

Recognizing this key commonality re-centers me to focus on the heart of my work: to lead others closer into living in right relationship with God, others, self, and creation. I can supply physical needs, like tomatoes all day, but at the end of it there is a deep spiritual need within us all that can’t be satisfied by tomatoes. That’s the impact I want to have in others’ lives.


Now I understand why buying the tomatoes was not my best move.

The woman was capable of going herself. Maybe she was nervous about going to the market herself, but I did not help her overcome that fear by doing it for her.

Instead, I affirmed her mindset that she is incapable of overcoming, and too weak to adjust to life in America. Obviously, that is not what I wanted to communicate to this woman. But, now that I’ve read When Helping Hurts, I can see how I did do that.  

If you are a person who wants to help other people, this is the book for you. Whether you are a pastor or missionary, social worker or teacher, or preparing for a short term trip, this is a must read.

The authors provide invaluable insight, and each page is packed with so much information. You might not agree with every principle or approach outlined, but the main point remains: we seek to restore humanity back to the broken, of which we are too.

As I read, I found it most beneficial to have my journal handy. Each chapter starts and ends with discussion questions, and as each chapter moves, different thoughts and ideas popped up. Because there was so much for me to reflect on as I read, it took longer to read; I couldn’t just fly through it.

But really, those are the best books. The books that shake our norms, and correct gaps in our thinking on a certain topic are not to be ignored. When Helping Hurts is not to be ignored because dealing with poverty cannot be ignored.

And if we’re going to step into the lives of others, helping and teaching along the way, we better have a solid foundation. I’m deeply appreciative of the painstaking efforts the authors went through to lead us through When Helping Hurts. There are lots of facts, stories and statistics, but hold tight.

This is the practical playbook we need as we seek long-term restoration for all people. I highly recommend reading this with a curious perspective about the true reality of poverty, and an open heart about the true cycle and response to helping people.

The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson: Praying Big

“God is great not just because nothing is too big for him; God is great because nothing is too small for Him.”

The Circle Maker, page 113

“When you pray regularly, you never know when God will show up or speak up. Today could be the day. When you live in prayer mode, you live with holy anticipation. You know that coincidences are providences. Any moment can turn into a holy moment. God can invade the reality of your life at three o’clock one afternoon and change everything.”

The Circle Maker, page 65

I mark up my books. Mostly with underlines, sometimes with a star or asterisk to the side. It drives my husband crazy, but it helps me to learn. It helps me to not miss the message woven in the writing that I most need to hear in that season of reading.

Without a doubt, the book I’ve marked up the most recently is Circle Maker by Mark Batterson. Inspired by a first-century BC man who drew a circle of prayer in the middle of a drought and refused to leave until the rain came, Batterson describes a method of prayer that completely circles around and through our requests. The book, which is an entire testimony to the prayer walk of Batterson and his congregation, introduces believers to a different mindset to prayer.

Now, I need to pause here.

The premise of the book is not to literally draw a circle and to sit in it while you pray. Actually, it’s a book about persistence and patience. It’s about perseverance and boldly seeking a heavenly kingdom, even here. The book invites us to participate in a walk with the Lord marked by bold and faithful prayers, and requires a kind of stubborn faith that is dedicated to the practice of praying until the end.

I almost couldn’t stop underlining, and there’s so much that could be said about this book. But for today, let me leave you with 3 main takeaways.


3 Takeaways

001: “It takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert.” Circle Maker, page 86

I think one of the woes of living as a sinful human is that prayer is hard. It just is. It’s hard to find focus, to sit down to it, and to be faithful to showing up to it. I don’t know that I’ve ever met a believer who admits to having a perfect prayer life without any flaw.

Taken from research on world class athletes, musicians, and writers, Batterson brings up that it takes 10,000 hours to develop world-class mastery. Drawing from the implied practice and determination it takes to get there, he makes the point that prayer is the same.

No, it’s not about logging hours. It’s not that when I reach my 10,000th hour of prayer that I’ll be some expert. No, not even close. But he is saying that a solid prayer life takes time. His point remind us, “It is a habit to be cultivated. It is a discipline to be developed. It is a skill to be practiced.”

This gives me hope. I’m just as broken as the person who seems to pray so effortlessly and often, and the difference between me and that person is simple. They’ve committed themselves to the practice of prayer. That’s it. They’ve taken the plunge of faith it takes to show up to pray to an unseen God every day. They have stretched their patience, focused on the Lord, and continued meeting with Him.  

They practice prayer. And it’s not always easy, but they do it in anyways.

And you know what, anyone can get in on that. The only failure in prayer is to stop praying. Establishing a prayer rhythm isn’t happenstance, and that means that all of us have the power to start healthier prayer habits and approaches even today.

002: “When you know you are praying the promises of God, you can pray with holy confidence.” Circle Maker, page 91

Did you know that conservative estimates say there are more than 3,000 promises in Scripture? And because of the work of Jesus, those promises belong to those who believe in Him.

James 1:5, ours.

1 John 1:9, ours.

Psalm 37:4, ours.

Romans 8:28, ours.

Did you hear that? God made Scripture. God made incredible promises. And we have permission to approach Him with those promises.

Some of the Christians I most respect and look up to have talked about praying Scripture right back to God. Hey, if He wrote it then surely it is the most reliable set of words we can read back to Him. Batterson coins it as “God’s grammar.” It’s His own language and set of terms. Why wouldn’t we bring that up in our talks with Him? Not to mention the words He promises are beautiful and plenty to sustain us.

We can read our way through the Bible, but prayer through the Bible plants its words deep within us. We learn how to cling to His promises by heart when we’re speaking those words back to Him, counting on Him to come through with it. My faith in Him heightens when He answers. And He will answer because He’s God and it’s not in His nature to break a promise.

003: “You’ll never achieve the goals you don’t set.” Circle Maker, page 176

Something I started praying about and seeking earlier this year are goals for the coming years. I sat down more than once to my Bible and a composition book that I’ve deemed as my Life Goals journal. This inspiration came from the He Restores My Soul podcast by Jani Ortlund, where she unpacks the value and how-to of casting vision.

One of the final chapters of Circle Maker, “Life Goal List,” could have not have come at a more appropriate time. Just like Jani, Batterson also unpacks the value of setting goals, why it’s important to prayer, and 10 steps for writing them down.

In his goal-setting guide, Batterson walks us through the practical elements of a good goal while above all recognizing that the chief end of a good goal is make God’s name famous. Not only does he give us practical steps for setting a good goal, but the entire list hinges on prayer. Beginning, middle, and end.

The rest of the book aside, this chapter alone was enough to remind me that we are not made to live on auto-pilot. We have been given opportunities and imagination that we’ve barely tapped into. One of the greatest opportunities of goal-setting is getting to marvel at the goodness of God to not only let us dream so big, but to provide incredible ways for those dreams to unfold. The bigger we pray, the more God’s name is magnified when He answers.


Batterson’s passion for prayer is contagious. He believes deeply in the power of prayer, and loves to tell the stories of how the Lord has provided for him; it’s evident on every page.

If you are looking for encouragement as to why you should be praying more and creative ideas on how to do that, you will enjoy this book. Batterson shares some incredible, specific stories in which the Lord came through for him. I loved reading his narrative on how he prays, and was moved to believe that anyone can do this. It just requires practice. Anyone can pray with this level of faith. You just have to start and see it through.

If you are looking for a highly academic, scholarly discourse then this is probably not the book you want to read. Certainly we can all glean some inspiration from this work, but I think it’s important to come in with this mindset that this is ultimately a narrative of one man’s testimony of how he has seen prayer make a difference in his walk.

I have to add that caveat because I think it would be very easy to be disappointed by this book if you come in with the wrong expectations. Instead, I encourage you to start with this simple question: what does a life of prayer look like and how can I practice it?

Much of what Batterson describes are practices and rhythms that I have heard other Christians I look up to say and do. And I feel like if I have heard this message, or similar to it, from the mouths of multiple, well-trusted people, then I can listen to Batterson’s message too.

The heart of Circle Maker is that 100% of the prayers we don’t pray don’t get answered, and if we want something to change, we have to do something different. Batterson’s message is simple: try a new thing. Try a new prayer model. Try a different mindset. Whatever it takes to get closer to seeing the kingdom of God unfold in our world, try it.

Ultimately, are any one of us going to damage ourselves further by praying more? Are any of us going to waste our time by finding different ways to refresh our spirit in Christ? Is anyone really going to be reprimanded for coming to God and saying, “This might look crazy, and it’s sacrificing new portions of my energy, and I feel a little clumsy about it, but it’s worth it because I just want to be nearer to You.”

You’ll never know if you don’t try.  


“There are higher heights and deeper depths in prayer, and God wants to take you there. He wants to take you places you have never been before. There are new dialects. There are new dimensions. But if you want God to do something new in your life, you can’t do the same old thing. It will involve more sacrifice, but if you are willing to go there, you’ll realize that you didn’t sacrifice anything at all. It will involve more risk, but if you are willing to go there, you’ll realize that you didn’t risk anything at all.

Take the risk.

Draw the circle.”

Circle Maker, page 34

Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan: a Noble, Ordinary Hero

“They shared a long silence. ‘What do we do, Father?’

‘We have faith, Pino. We have faith and continue to do what is right.’”

Mark Sullivan, Beneath a Scarlet Sky

I’m deeply indebted to historical fiction as an entire genre, and owe a hearty thanks to some of these books that have reintroduced me to the wonder of storytelling this last year.

Among these more recent, great historical-fiction reads is Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. Set in Italy near the end of World War II, this tale sends readers on a journey through the eyes of Pino Lella, an Italian teenager.

Pino. The boy who led a Jewish underground railroad movement and acted as a spy for Allied forces. Pino, the unsung hero who helped end a World War and lived most his life after quiet about it.

The Story

Pino Lella is only a teenager when Nazis overtake his home Milan. As the hand of the German forces grows stronger in his community, Pino is sent to live at a Catholic convent in the mountains.

Just after arriving to the convent, Pino is asked to lead Jewish refugees on secretive, strenuous hikes through the dangerous passes over the Alps and into the safe zone of Switzerland. For months, all though the winter and beyond, Pino operates this underground railroad leading dozens of people to safety over the treacherous passes of the mountains.

When Pino is summoned back home to be drafted for service, his family forces him to join German efforts in order to ride out the nearing end of the War. He protests at first, but what he soon discovers is an opportunity to serve as a spy for Allied forces as Pino becomes a personal driver for a Nazi general.

In this remarkable journey of courage and hope, Pino Lella affects the entire trajectory of the War by daily putting his life on the line for a cause bigger than himself. He falls in love, fiercely protects, and never gives up on the good that can be found in the world.

Here’s the Wild Thing: It’s a True Story

Beneath a Scarlet Sky was born after 11 years of extensive research by author Mark Sullivan, who estimates that 80%-90% of the story true. Over a decade of study, interviews, and simply being in Pino Lella’s presence culminated into this book. This is a treasure for us as there is a not a lot of written documentation of World War II in Italy. Who knows how many stories we’ve missed; even for Mr. Lella, his story had gone untold for decades.

This is Why I Love Historical Fiction

We can pick up a history textbook if we want to learn about WWII. But, there is something about storytelling that affects our brains in totally different ways. Suddenly we’re not just reading facts and summaries crammed on a few pages, but we’re in the story too.

We’re on our way to the market, walking past Nazi generals with guns in hands and swastikas banded. We’re knocked to the ground, covering our ears at the ear-splitting sound of explosion around us. We’re hiking snow trails across the Alps, leading refugees to safety. Suddenly, we are the refugee, fleeing for safety while wearing a target on our back.

I gained more empathy for the effects of WWII in this book than I ever did reading countless textbook pages. By delving into Pino’s story, I met Nazis and Jewish refugees. My tears fell at the weight of it all, and I rejoiced at the victories. No longer was WWII a black and white stain on our world’s story, but it became this nuanced tapestry made up of real people who fought for its end in indescribable ways.

You can’t learn that in a textbook. It takes the patience of hearing a story to gain that sort of understanding.

“But we can’t stop loving our fellow man, Pino, because we’re frightened. If we lose love, all is lost.”

Mark Sullivan

Retracing the Steps: a Guide for Reading

As I read, I retraced the steps of Pino by looking at maps and searching photos. I found what I believe is the Catholic convent he lived in (or dang close to it). I saw the lake he led his underground railroad around. I saw his home city, and the cathedral that represented hope and safety for him. I saw the same streets where Pino Lella fell in love, wept, witnessed atrocities, and fought for restoration.

With each discovery, as I looked at each picture and Google earth image, I thought, “He was there. He stood there. He stood up for his country and for peace there.”

This is another beautiful opportunity historical fiction grants us. I created a Pinterest board of photos and links that I found helpful while reading. For me, it made the reading so much richer as I really delved into Italy in WWII. If that sounds fun and nerdy to you too, check out the board to see some of the sights referenced in the story.

Final Word: an Excellent Five Stars

If you look for them, you’ll certainly find the critics of this book. But as far as I’m concerned, this was an excellent read and I plan to keep it on my shelf and recommend to others for years to come. Mark Sullivan honored the story of Pino Lella with his careful crafting of this quiet hero’s journey; he did the world a service by sharing it.

I will admit: it wasn’t Sullivan’s writing style that captivated me. I wasn’t drawn to this book because it boasts incredible dialogue or beautifully moving poetic style. Actually, what drew me in was the unavoidable message at the center of every page that every breathe we have left is a breath of purpose.

Even the ordinary breaths.

Pino Lella thought his story was ordinary. Plain. Not worth rehashing. But here is the truth: there are no ordinary days that don’t make a difference. He showed us that the most remarkable stories happen by taking one step after another, making decisions one at a time. We could be living in the middle of a World War, saving lives and communicating critical information, and never realize the impact we’re making.

Pino Lella’s story promises us that even in the darkest of days love is there. His story is evidence that there is more good at work than bad. Don’t get me wrong – times are tough. But, we have a choice to make. We can either be victimized by it, or fight courageously to see the good.

Every step we walk has the power to change the entire trajectory of someone’s future. Let’s dare believe that. And as we take our steps, one after the other, we follow that young Italian’s example. We continue –

to have faith,

to do what is right,

and above all,

find the strength to believe there is good woven in every day

“You know, my young friend, I will be ninety years old next year, and life is still a constant surprise to me. We never know what will happen next, what we will see, and what important person will come into our life, or what important person we will lose. Life is change, constant change, and unless we are lucky enough to find comedy in it, change is nearly always a drama, if not a tragedy. But after everything, and even when the skies turn scarlet and threatening, I still believe that if we are lucky enough to be alive, we must give thanks for the miracle of every moment of every day, no matter how flawed.”

Pino Lella

The Matchmaker’s List by Sonya Lalli: Tension of Love, Culture, and Learning Lessons of Honesty

The Matchmaker’s List | Sonya Lalli | Fiction, Romance

Paperback: 329 | Publisher: Berkley (2019) | ISBN: 9780451490940


Here’s the first thing to know about The Matchmaker’s List: it’s not a holiday rom-com.

Wanting to read some sweet, Christmas funnies, I searched for a few to put on hold at the library. The Matchmaker’s List popped up in my searches, and I’m ashamed to say, I judged the book by its cover.

As it turns out, the white specks on the cover are not snowflakes. They’re just dots. And the red flowers the men are holding aren’t poinsettias. They’re just flowers.

Believe it or not, I had read the synopsis. But even so, I refused to believe it wasn’t a holiday rom-com. “The Christmas and the snow will be here somewhere!,” I told myself, holding out hope for a Christmas love story.


The *Not-So-Holiday* Story

In this story of learning to love and self-honesty, author Sonya Lalli takes readers on a journey of a 29 year-old bank analyst, Raina, who has made a deal with her Indian grandmother, Nani: if Raina isn’t married by her 30th birthday, Nani gets to arrange a marriage.

In a race against the clock, Nani chooses suitors from all over the Toronto Indian community to pair with her granddaughter. However, with each date, Raina finds herself more frustrated. And what Nani doesn’t know is that Raina is secretly holding on to hope for a man she loved (and still loves), wanting to believe that he might be ready to love her too.

Oh, and she’s internally battling with the tradition of her Indian culture too.

Throughout the journey, Raina asks hard questions. Why does she have to marry to be happy? Why does her Indian heritage leave no space for her opinion or space? What if this isn’t what she wants? Who even is she, apart from the marital expectations placed on her?

In The Matchmaker’s List, as Raina pines for a man she keeps waiting on to change, watches her best friend’s mom plan an elaborate Indian wedding, navigates the confusing dynamic of her family relationships, and of course, goes on multiple dates, Raina discovers that maybe love and life really does happen in ways that are not always arranged or planned. And maybe that’s okay.


My Thoughts

Shout Out to All the Immigrants Making it in a New Home

“Nani rarely spoke about the past, and I thought about pressing her. How had she felt about leaving her parents, one day suddenly packing her things and moving in with a husband she barely knew? What was it like getting on a plane for the first time in her life, crossing into a new country – cold, barren, and raising children in a land you knew nothing about?”

Sonya Lalli, The Matchmaker’s List, page 96

One reason I chose The Matchmaker’s List as my next read – despite my reluctant doubts to believe it had nothing to do with snow or Christmas – was because of the opportunity to learn more about Indian culture and customs.

Lalli does not disappoint as she describes the textures and scents of the culture across multiple pages; I loved those moments. So often, I felt myself cooking beside Nani or sitting in her living room with tea. I heard Nani talking to the other women, and could picture myself wearing a sari in the beautiful big to-do of Raina’s best friend’s wedding.

And with each beautiful description of the culture, I saw the sacrifice that immigrant families make to come to a new home. I felt the effects of their children growing up on a different continent, and the confusion of generationally integrating in a new home.

How do you honor your history and culture, while also making a home in a new, totally different place? felt like an underlying question throughout.

The book hinges on Lalli’s description of the tension mostly between Raina and her Indian community. As a granddaughter being raised by traditional Indian culture in a progressive, large, Canadian city, Raina’s internal conflict in The Matchmaker’s List is probably a tension felt by all immigrant and refugee families resettled: seeking to make a better life, in a new home, while still honoring their heritage.

I enjoyed Lalli’s perspective into this confusing, messy, and under-told perspective of the immigrant and refugee story.

But, It Felt Like My Home

The Matchmaker’s List is not only a unique glimpse into Indian culture, but it also resonated familiar feelings of love for home within me too.

Although the underlying tension of Raina’s relationship with her Nani was the center of the plot, I adored their relationship. I love Nani like my own granny, and understood Raina’s desire to meet her expectations and make her proud. Actually, Raina’s gentle love and understanding of her grandmother convicted me, making me wonder if my love for my own grandmother’s mirror a level of grace like Raina’s.

I did love Raina and her grandmother’s relationship; their love was evident, and honestly, probably a testament to the close familial ties in Indian culture. Reading that from an individualist, American worldview was refreshing.

I Know Relationships are Hard, But…

Lalli did a wonderful job at painting images of all of Raina’s relationships. With Raina’s transient mother’s sudden coming and going, the clash with her best friend, the guy that she didn’t expect to fall for – Lalli captured the complex nuance of relationships.

She agreed with us that living with people is hard. But she also showed us that it’s beautiful and worth it, and requires hard honesty and unconditional love woven at the center of those complicated relationships.

With that, Raina came from a messed up family. Oddly, I appreciated that. Reading some of the flashbacks of her life, key points that shaped her, I was reminded of how deeply specific moments root within us – growing with us past childhood and well into adulthood. We are truly shaped by people and experiences. And not just us, but our entire worldview and outlook.

However, despite whatever childhood trauma and confusion she was going through, Raina was pretty unkind to others in her life in the novel. She really hurt a lot of people by lying to them, keeping truths from them, ignoring them, refusing to own up to her mistakes. And it messed up some relationships. She had damage to fix.

She did eventually make her wrongs, right. I applaud Lalli for that. I saw a lot of redemption in those relationships. But I just wonder how different it could have been if she had been brave enough to stand up and tell the truth in the first place, instead of waiting months to gather even more courage to own up to her mistakes.

And Oh, Yes, The Perfectionism

“She reached for my hand, and as he slight brown fingers interlocked with my own, that’s when I realized that in my silence, I was being complicit. I realized how much I truly loved this vivacious, slightly insane little woman, and what I would do to be the only person in her life never to break her heart. I would go along with it. I would live up to her expectations, and that promised I made to her two years ago – brokenhearted and desperate for my life to make sense once again – that if I wasn’t married at thirty, I’d let her make the arrangements for me.”

Sonya Lalli, The Matchmaker’s List, page 13

Probably the aspect that Lalli touched on that most resonated with me was the teaching of perfectionism. She delves into the pressure put on us, especially children of unfortunate situations, to rise and be better – in this case, better than her mother. While I don’t completely agree with Lalli’s execution of this topic, I did feel the weight of the pressure she was describing.

Raina had lived her whole life trying to be perfect, and never disappoint anyone. It took her until her 30th birthday to realize how absurd this was, and to see that actually, in her efforts to not disappoint anyone she’d actually created an even bigger mess.

Life is all about living and learning. Making mistakes and growing. We’re going to let people down. And Raina had let the pressure of believing she couldn’t for so long. I was so sad to see Raina live in this mindset. Humans are not created to be perfect, and in a lot of ways, Raina tried to be the God and Savior of her own story; it didn’t work.

I was glad to see Raina peel back her scales of perfectionism and fear, and by the end of the book, be honest about who she truly is. But man, was it a frustrating journey watching her get there.

Let’s Find a Better Argument Than “Tradition Sucks”

Although Lalli delivered on her description of Indian culture, I did not sense any deep love or appreciation for the culture as a whole. Actually, I felt a sense of shame and frustration with this community. This was disappointing because I thought there could have been more said to pull the reader into a deeper understanding of Indian culture, and there could have been redemptive qualities stated. Instead, by the end of the book, Lalli seems to state through Raina: my culture is wrong and outdated, and it needs to change. She only wanted to focus on the negative.

I’m not sure what to do with that. I think the “tradition sucks” argument is old and worn out, and cheaply done. But that was the premise of the whole book. I would have loved to have seen a more well-rounded, mature approach to disagreement. Instead, I read frustration and low-key complaining throughout.

And honestly, maybe I am working through this personally too. I know that loving people does not mean always agreeing with them, and I am not claiming that Indian culture is perfect. I don’t understand Lalli’s response to her community, and tradition, through Raina though. I’m still grappling with that. 

Major Eye Roll at the “BIG LIE”

Another thing I was frustrated by was the “big lie.” I’m not going to spoil it for you. But there is a huge lie that Raina allows her grandma to believe, and in turn the entire Indian community in Toronto, believe. When the lie is first mentioned, it seems so small. But soon thereafter, the entire plot of the book hinges on this lie.

I really struggled with that too. The lie itself is ridiculous, and disrespectful. I felt that it did not make for a strong plot, and I was actually really surprised to find the lie continue growing and getting bigger. What Lalli wanted to esteem with this lie was actually cheapened by it. She seemed to make a mockery of a topic that the whole premise of the book is to accept.


The Final Word: Staying at the Library (For Now)

I loved the peek into Indian life, and stepping into the shoes of an immigrant’s granddaughter. I loved seeing Raina work through hard choices. I saw redemption in Raina’s self-discovery and relationships.

I think what I’m ultimately struggling with here in The Matchmaker’s List is that Lalli and I have vastly different worldviews.

We have different beliefs on who should marry, and how situations should be handled. We disagree on what it looks like to respect others, and how to be “true to yourself.” We have different levels of respect for submission and tradition.

Sonya Lalli and Brianna Persinger are very different. But I’ve had to settle with this: it’s okay. It is good to read literature and see life from many different angles.

If your experience reading this is like mine, you won’t pick up many quotes to jot down on the back of your bookmark. You’re going to relate more to relationships between characters than you will to the characters themselves. You’ll raise your eyebrows at some of the comments and situations in the book, because you know you’d write it very different. But, you’ll try to understand where Lalli is coming from. You’ll just respectfully disagree.

Read it, because we can not wear out the reminder that everyone is fighting battles that we – that even they – might not yet understand. We all need to remember what unconditional love and respect looks like in relationships, and we certainly need to develop a deeper empathy for the nuanced struggles of the immigrant journey and acclimation.

Although Sonya Lalli arrived to those conclusions different than I would have, I appreciated her perspective to arrive there in some fashion in The Matchmaker’s List. I’m glad to have checked this one out from the library, but am going to leave it there for now. Perhaps I’ll check it out again later, and see what refreshed eyes feel about it then.

Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan: an Illustration of the Resiliency of Refugee Children

Say You’re One of Them | Author: Uwem Akpan | Genre: Fiction

Paperback: 361 | Publisher: Back Bay Books (2008) | ISBN: 978-0-316-08637-0

“It was a time just to be a human being and to celebrate that. What mattered now was how to get people to lay down their weapons and biases, and how to live together.”

Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan, page 254

This book is not at all what I thought. But it had Oprah’s Book Club sticker on it, so I should have expected it to pummel my heart to pieces.

In a collection of 5 short stories, Akpan guides us through an emotional journey of life as an African child in the trenches of war and conflict, running and genocide, slavery and street life. Told through the perspective of children, Akpan places us in kid shoes walking through adult situations.

In a genius, moving work, Akpan has fictionalized some of the most real, complex conflicts plaguing the African continent. In doing so, he has placed us directly into places we only see in clips on a screen or read brief headlines about.

For those of us who are hundreds and hundreds of miles away, he has made these situations real through the art of storytelling. And I both hate him and love him for that.

A Writing Style That Honors His Culture

Akpan has a unique style, and each page flows poetically. His stories have given me a higher caliber for the fiction I read. Some of the most recent ficion I’ve gotten into suddenly feels lame compared to the way Say You’re One of Them reads.

Also, if you’re interested in world languages, this one is for you. Akpan has written true to the language of the people in his story. The dialogue can be tricky to follow, as its written in broken English and certainly doesn’t follow an accurate grammar. But, the speech is true to what we might actually hear if speaking to a nonnative English speaker.

Plus, Akpan has sprinkled in plenty of phrases and words in the heart language of his characters. Which certainly makes for a more interesting read, but is also more difficult to follow at times. I love that he has chosen to honor his fellow Africans by letting us into their own language.

I Expected Happy Endings

I guess I thought this would flow through one cohesive story, or at least that each chapter would relate to one another in one way. I was several pages into the second “chapter” before I realized that there was no connection between that “chapter” and the first.

Instead, I had just read a story. And the ending to it surely didn’t feel complete. I was still looking for the ending from the first “chapter” while I was reading the second, which I eventually realized was not a chapter but a whole different story in and of itself.

This was hard to grapple with. Man, I love a good happy ending with some kind of resolution. However, this book did not deliver that. In fact, none of the stories have an ending that you’d hope for.

But I can’t blame Akpan for that.

He is simply telling us about real situations on the African continent. As hard as it is to stomach, we have been waiting for innumerable conflicts to find closure for generations; they just haven’t yet.

I Left Feeling Both Completely Built and Torn

As a Westerner living in a developed world, reading through a lens of nearly uneducated children living in total poverty was hard.

I was inspired by the resiliency of the kids, but also emotionally depleted to witness their struggles. Their innocence reigned brilliantly, and though I celebrated that, it was heart-wrenching to see that same innocence violated.

I rooted for the kids, and felt a sense of pride when they succeeded in a small victory. I soon realized that these small spurts of victory were always quickly followed by a harder to defeat.

I was amazed by the conditions in which these families live in – huts, limited food, no shoes on their feet or vehicles to drive – and felt challenged to live on less too. But then I felt their loss when what little they had was taken away. I saw what riches can do to a person, especially a poverty-stricken person, and was confused about it.

Especially in the Largest Refugee Crisis in Modern History…

As a person who works with refugee families every day, I have to say: this book is profound because of the perspective it gives to the background of a refugee.

A refugee is a person who has fled their home based on well-grounded fear of persecution, war, genocide, or natural disaster. Usually because of things out of their control, such as race, ethnicity, religious or political preferences. It’s easy to skim through that definition, until you let it sink in, and start really considering what the journey of a refugee looks like.

Especially as the U.S. commits to bringing a record low number of refugees into the States this year, I believe reading the stories of fleeing is more important now than it has ever been. I don’t have to clarify this, but I will: there is a gross misunderstanding of who a refugee actually is.

Refugees are not the enemy. They are the targeted, the unwanted, the hated, the ones pushed aside for the selfish, horrifying gain of others. They are, really, people born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Refugees are the vulnerable, making decisions from a place of survival without the time, energy, or resources to consider thriving.

And when unprotected children are placed in this number of chaos and terror, and when we read the story of kids running away totally alone from something they don’t even understand, it creates a different kind of compassion within us.

It’s a compassion that moves with an urgency to see justice against their enemies (who are really our enemies too), and a passion to bring them into a fold of protection. To guard them, and restore them back to believing that they are valuable and welcomed. Have some of the world’s children ever heard that?

No, I can’t solve all the world conflicts and I can’t help all the millions of refugees displaced from their homes now. I can’t even help the thousands who will flee their homes today alone. I don’t mean to be rude, but I doubt you can either.

But, what we can do is seek to understand their story and make it known. I can tell the stories of people who have courageously left, and made impossible decisions just to take a few more breaths. I can tell you about the resiliency of the most vulnerable people in the world today, and through their journeys, show you just a glimpse of their passion for life and desire for safety.

Sometimes the most powerful, and honest, form of advocacy is storytelling.

In Short: Read It, but Read with Wisdom

The dialogue and language barriers will force you to read this more slowly. Be okay with that. Honestly, it’s a blessing because these stories are too emotionally difficult to rush through.

Every story shook me, some more violently than others. Akpan spared us many details, but still painted a picture of what it feels like to ride a refugee bus or to watch a sister fall into prostitution. He illustrated what could possibly lead an uncle to sell his family into slavery, and what it truly feels like to be a Muslim on a bus full of Christians and wizards.

We think we know about these things; we don’t have a clue.

I left each page feeling emotionally spent. When I finished the last story, I was grumpy. I gave Travis short and snappy responses, and was acting like a brat for at least an hour on a road trip with my family. Then it clicked: I have to process this. I have to give myself time to settle these feelings, and to recover from this book.

It was a hard read.

But, it’s important too. I applaud Akpan for giving us a glimpse into lives we can barely imagine. Say You’re One of Them is beautiful, stunning, awe-inspiring – it’s all of this, and more, because of the voice it gives to the unheard voices and the untold stories.

And these small – yet not so small – voices unify us with a passion to create a safer world for children to live in. I’m going to meet my own refugee kids at after school today a little more gently and compassion filled, because Akpan has told a story of their history that they’ve yet to understand. The journey to that realization is not easy, but it’s a worthwhile pursuit that has changed my perspective.

I thought I understood the journey of a refugee, but I didn’t have a clue. Thank you, Uwem Akpan, for penning these hard words. I am better for it.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman: A Prophetic Wake Up Call, Echoing Back Decades

Amusing Ourselves to Death | Author: Neil Postman | Genre: Nonfiction

Paperback: 184 | My Edition’s Publisher: Penguin Group (2006) | Original Publisher: Viking Penguin Inc. (1985) | ISBN: 978-0-14-303653-1

Rating: 5/5

“Television, in other words, is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business.”

Postman, page 80

If you need a wake-up call to the ways that entertainment has reshaped our culture, and continues to infiltrate every part of our society, this is for you.

If you need to confirm your weary suspicions that media is crazy and is making us crazy, this is also for you.

Neil Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, argues how public thought and conversation has been misshapen in an era of show business, constant entertainment, information overload, reliance on technological media, and ultimately, led us to an addiction us to our own deadly disease. Speaking to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Postman describes how we are ruining ourselves and our society with our addiction to being entertained.

Yeah, it’s a lot.

It’s a heavy read, and it took me several weeks. But, I think this is important for us to consider. We cannot deny the fact that our entire society has been completely infiltrated by entertainment, technology, and media.

Have we made it through the year 2019 yet? Just barely. Have we survived next year’s presidential election? Lord, help us.

It Got Me Thinking…

Postman’s argument is not simply that TV is bad. Instead, he illustrates to us how vastly different communication has become in recent decades. Taking each chapter to discuss a different avenue – specifically politics, education, news, and religion – and how TV has changed these spheres, his overarching theme is that TV is deteriorating those spaces because it is not suitable to relay this information and to give room for conversation to follow.  

In short, modern day America has become so addicted to entertainment, that we won’t even receive the news and politics and education without it.

But what if those pairs can’t coexist?

When we choose to use the screen to relay all of our news and politics and education and religion, we are choosing to receive it in a way that entertains us, and only widening the gap between our ability to have a thoughtful discussion and our desire to always be entertained. This book makes us wonder how entertainment has changed the difficult conversations.

“Television, as I have implied earlier, serves us most usefully when presenting junk entertainment. It serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse – news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion – and turns them in to entertainment packages. We would all be better off if television got worse, not better. ‘The A-Team’ and ‘Cheers’ are no threat to our public health. ’60 Minutes,’ ‘Eye-Witness News,’ and ‘Sesame Street’ are.”

postman, pages 159-160

He says that we are teaching ourselves to love TV – not the information. We are a society of people who are being taught that if it’s not entertaining or pleasurable to me, then I don’t want to hear it. So, the only way that we receive information is by getting it in little pieces crammed between advertisements. There is no cohesion, or connection to its context. There is not background or even time for a full argument, to discuss all of its implications.

Just like our addiction to scrolling and seeing dozens of photos and bits of information in a mere minute, so is our reception to news. Just tons of tiny bits, and no glue to hold it together. Not to mention, no time to make sense of it all.

One of the most alarming chapters to me was Chapter 8 “Shuffle Off to Bethlehem.” In this chapter, Postman discusses religion and TV. And it’s astounding.

On our screen, we have witnessed profane events and have sinful memories etched into our brains; it’s difficult to use our screen for a sacred event. I can easily turn my screen to a Preds game or Netflix. It’s no problem to click over to Instagram. What about that space is suitable for my worship? What have I truly consecrated and given up in the total adoration for the Lord that I claim to love, when I give him a bit of time between my scrolling and watching? When I rely on my screen for spiritual refreshment, I will always be let down, because there are always apps waiting on either side of my worship, rushing me back.

I should also note that Postman doesn’t claim Christianity, or any other religion in the book. But even as he writes from a secular mindset, he sees these problems – perhaps more clearly than my religious friends can. That’s also astounding.

“The problem, in any case, does not reside in what people watch. The problem is in that we watch. The solution must be found in how we watch. For I believe it may fairly be said that we have yet to learn what television is. And the reason is that there has been no worthwhile discussion, let alone widespread public understanding, of what information is and how it gives direction to a culture.”

postman, page 160

By the way, in case you didn’t catch it above, this book was written over 3 decades ago. And he is spot. On. In a prophetic tone echoing from its original creation in 1985, Postman has presented us with a detailed warning that we are on the way to our own disaster. His message has not lost meaning over these years. Instead, it’s clearer and more relevant now than ever.

As I read, I thought of my own screens. No, for me it’s not cable television anymore. But it is Twitter and Instagram, Netflix and Crowd City. It’s mindless scrolling, wasting time numbing my brain and believing every headline I read. And after the last couple years our nation has seen, as we mock a president’s ridiculous comments on social media and receive risqué headlines that barely give us the story, who can argue that we don’t have an entertainment problem.

Actually, if I’m honest with myself, I have a hard time stomaching the news because it does feel like a joke. I can’t take the most serious news I will receive seriously, because of its packaging. And of course, the way its packaged and delivered alters the message altogether. It leaves me to wonder – what can I trust?

From a Christian, to a Christian:

Coming from a Christian worldview, brothers and sisters, we have to consider this topic. As Christ-followers, we should desire to be the most present, intentional people in all our conversations – no matter how big or small. But how often does our media get in the way of our presence? How many time have we worshipped our media and entertainment? How often do we let it rob our memory of the dignity of a person?

If the world cares about education, politics, religion, how much more should I? I know our Maker, and I know what he says about the value of people. He has dignified our position, and I call him a liar when I’m not engaging in these conversations.

Most of all, my pride is reigning when I choose entertainment first. I am saying that how I feel is more important than the person or conversation at hand. This is a woe of 2019, but that doesn’t excuse us from the damaging affects of our phones.

The verdict:

We would all do well to seriously consider our relationship with media, and to question our addiction to entertainment. And for that reason alone (and because I love ya and don’t want to see you waste your brain power), I believe this provocative, bold book is well worth the read.

Don’t fall asleep on this one. Put on your brave face. Brace yourself for impact. Grab a cup of coffee, and settle in. This is good. Difficult, but good.