Trash Digging Versus Resort Living: Reflections from Colleen Costigan

September 21, 2014 by Diana Coombs


Gratitude over guilt.

I’ve preached about this one. Wrote about it in one of my first blogs. I don’t believe in guilt. I think it drags you down. I think it leads to bitterness. I think it can be a heavy weight on your shoulders that you carry from place to place. I think it sucks the life out of you. I think it overpowers joy. I think it makes you ugly inside and out. And when I say you, I mean me. Because I wrestle with it, especially lately. Especially after showing up at my friend Susan’s house wondering why she didn’t use the $3 I gave her to bring her grandson with an eye infection to the clinic.

Sometimes I wonder if I should believe what she tells me, why she chose to use the money in a different way. This is the ugly, guilt-ridden side of me driven by a fear of enabling instead of empowering.

But then I look around, and I see for my own eyes how little she has. I see her kids waking up from the mosquito net–less dirt floor. I don’t see beds. I don’t see a pantry full of food. I don’t see a closet full of clothes. I don’t see chai cooking on the stove. I don’t see a TV in the corner or a radio or a refrigerator or a smart phone or a dumb phone. I don’t see cushions on her chair. I don’t see a flush toilet or a pit toilet or running water.

I see a wooden bench and one wooden chair and a dilapidated mud wall.

And then I listen to her as she explains why they didn’t show up in the clinic yesterday.

Susan tells me the story of a young boy, Brian, who showed up at her house – her shanty house – hoping she can take him to the hospital. Susan already carries a lot of burdens trying to care for the other seven children in her home while managing diabetes and other health problems. But these burdens have never stopped her from turning away those who have less than her. She takes in orphans, helps treat kids with jiggers, counsels people who are suicidal, and shares about her faith in Jesus to all who cross her path.

Why did Brian show up at Susan’s? From what I understand, this 10-year-old was digging through a dump in search of food with the rest of the street boys when he got pushed and cut his foot on a glass bottle. When Brian arrived to Susan’s, she didn’t have any food. But she did have the $3 I gave her for the clinic visit. She made the choice to use it for food instead of taking her grandson to the eye clinic.

I have never had to choose between food for a few days or a visit to the doctor.  

When I showed up to Susan’s to inquire about the $3 I gave her, I was with a pastor. Maybe I misunderstood his actions or maybe he is used to seeing poverty. I don’t know. But what I witnessed disturbed me. He told Brian “utapona” (“you will heal” in Kiswahili) and proceeded on.

“Utapona” and walk away?

Did Jesus teach us that?

I don’t think so. And I don’t think Jesus cares how busy our schedules are or how many meetings we have to attend. Or how “normal” poverty starts to become. I think he tells us to look at the one in front of us, especially when that one is a 10-year-old boy with an infected wound and swollen foot.

Jesus calls us to take action.

When I met Brian, heard his story and saw his wound, I snapped into “there must be something we can domode. We have a car. We can take him to the hospital. We can pay $10 for his antibiotics.

As I write this, I am sitting at an all-you-can-eat resort on the coast of Kenya, enjoying the beautiful breeze and scenery of the Indian Ocean.

The poverty has been getting to me lately. Eating me up. Exhausting me. Overwhelming me. Depressing me.

And I don’t live in it. I just visit it.

And I had to go here to get away.

Do I feel guilty about that? You bet I do. Do I think about what I did to deserve all of this? You bet I do. Do I wonder why Brian is digging through trash for food when this morning at breakfast, I couldn’t choose between eggs, muffins, cereal or pancakes so I just ate all of them until I was so full that I just felt like sleeping (by the beach with the ocean breeze, of course).

I think about this all the time.

Maybe one could think, “She’s worked hard. She studied hard in college and then got her Master’s degree and worked hard for corporate America for five years.” Maybe she sort of earned some of her riches. Maybe.

Or maybe I didn’t earn anything. Maybe I just got lucky.

Or maybe I’m not lucky. Maybe, just maybe, there can be as much sadness in riches as there is in poverty. And maybe there can be as much joy in poverty as there is in riches.

Sometimes I fantasize about giving it all up. Saying no to my mom’s generosity of taking me to a nice resort to relax. Figuring out how I could stuff all the extra food that surrounds me into my purse and bring it to Brian and other street kids. I fantasize about living in a shanty house with nothing but a dirt floor to sleep on to see if that would take away the guilt. I want to know if I could really survive. I want to know if I would get relief from this haunting feeling of having so much.

I am going to leave you with a few questions to ponder, because sometimes, I get tired of thinking about them alone.

Why was I born on Parkland Avenue to an upper middle class family and never once had to worry about food or school fees?

Why was 10-year-old Brian born into the slum life in Kenya, abandoned by his mother, and left as a second grade dropout who digs through the trash for food?

Is $2 for a pair of shoes, $10 for wound treatment and food for lunch enough?

How do I not let guilt swallow me up and spit me out?

Guilt will run out. It will dry up. It will eventually eat away at the pieces of my soul that are driven to serve the poor.

But choosing gratitude?

Gratitude will carry me through. Gratitude will sustain me. Gratitude will propel me forward to give with open hands in a way that will honor God.

And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through Him.
Colossians 3:17

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Categories: Empowering Lives Featured Intern Voice Kenya