Actions that match their words

slum room asiaFor the fourth year in a row I had been invited to speak at an education conference. In previous years I had given a short, impassioned plea for adopting an ethic of service and working towards literacy for everyone. As far as I knew, there had been little meaningful response.

This time around, a group of educators from across the country approached the event organizer. They had a suggestion.

“We want to adopt that literacy program you have spoken about in past years. Can you focus on that this time?”

And so it was that I was given 90 minutes to share my heart to the crowd rather than just ten. I detailed our main principles: inquiry-based instruction with a focus on the student, reinforcement through positive feedback, and mutual respect between teacher and learner. I trained the audience, hundreds of school administrators from across the country, on how to use the program. But I still framed the talk around the stories of three young girls who yearned for an opportunity to read, and how you could make a difference in lives like theirs.

Afterwards, the educators who had requested the longer session came up to me.1 They said, “We’re flying to our home cities tomorrow. But first, we must see the slum where you live and teach.”

And so the next day 14 administrators from across the country piled into our little slum room. Well, maybe ten of them, because even with a few standing we couldn’t fit everyone inside. The others loitered at the door. For three hours (three hours!!!) the group peppered Peregrine and I with questions. “What led you to do this kind of work? How do you cross the boundaries of social class while remaining effective? How do you recruit and train teachers? What motivates the students to continue coming?” The insight in their questions was inspiring.

teaching in the slumAt the end of the meeting, the most senior among them, a man who had authority over tens of thousands of students, addressed me. “Tonight I must go to my city. Then I will get my teenage children and we will fly back so I can bring them to your slum. You will train them to become experts on the literacy program. Then we will start classes like yours. In six weeks you will come to our community and evaluate our progress, tell us how to improve. Then you will speak to our staff and our students and inspire them to join this mission.”

Suffice it to say, we were blown away.

literacyHis actions matched his words. Before the week was over his children had proven to be the best trainees we had ever had. Six weeks after that he flew2 me to his home city and showed me their literacy programs in action, which were in some ways running better than my own classes ever had. Over three days he had me speak in eight schools and his central office, hoping to inspire over a hundred teachers and administrators and ten times that many students on why they should take up the literacy initiative. Then he flew me to a partner program in another city to do the same thing there. A month later, he flew me to a national conference where I gave the spiel to 1500 educators from around the country. By that point one of his top chairmen had become so adept in the program that he co-hosted the talk with me, and we tag-teamed the presentation like pros. Over a hundred educators rushed me after the talk to shake my hand or get my number.

Within six months they were starting new literacy centers in half-a-dozen states.


What made this experience so different from the previous one? Why was it that one service-oriented group felt like a waste of time, while the other maximized every opportunity they had? I can’t pretend to discern everything, but in reflection I have guesses about what was going on.

  • The first group “served” for recognition, while the second group served because they desired that others would benefit. By all appearances the first group I spoke at was more of a social club, one that needed constant prizes and self-congratulations to continue the mission. On the other hand, every function I attended with the second group revolved 100% around how to best serve children and others, without outside incentives ever entering the picture.
  • The leader of the second group was highly respected, and he set the tone. Both groups were very hierarchical, which is not my preference. But the leader of the second group carried his authority in a different way, and was respected by everyone who could see his integrity and personal concern in pursuing the mission. When he took four days out of his busy schedule to have his own family become the first teachers of the program, that set an example for everyone else.
  • The first group was oriented around money, the second group was oriented around actions. In the first meeting, the only thing that I was certain they had done was raise $1700 for the program. In the second group I never once heard them place a dollar figure on the cost of the work. Their conversations centered on WHAT they would do, not on how much money they would spend to do it.
  • The first group did not express empathy, while the second group showed concern for others. Whether it was sympathy for our bad travel day and the effort we had made to come or respect for the speakers on stage, I rarely felt that the first group had empathy beyond their own agendas. The second group was striking in their efforts to hear our stories, meet our neighbors, and ensure that we were cared for in every event we partook in.

An interesting similarity between the groups is that both were very wealthy. But they differ in that the second group was led by someone who had come from a difficult upbringing, a single-mother family after his father passed away, and knew what it was like to struggle.3 I suspect from social cues that most of those in the first group had grown up in a place of privilege their entire life and didn’t know anything else.

It’s only a guess. And I certainly know of people who move from a place of need to a place of privilege and still don’t know how to be considerate to others and serve effectively. But I have sensed some sort of correlation between never having walked in a needy person’s shoes and then not being able to show meaningful empathy for the struggles of the needy, even if you go through the motions of “charitable duty”.4

It makes we wonder what we should be providing when we want to give our children the “best” opportunity in life.


[1] They were not the only ones to approach me – the presentation ended up inspiring administrators across the state who brought me in for three other trainings as well as several inspirational speeches.

[2] I have a policy of avoiding flights in-country and using the train system instead. The head of the organization insisted on flying me as that would maximize my time in the city and he was worried about potential inconvenience. I shared with him the environmental and social reasons that I preferred the train, and told him I had a lot of work which I could get done on trains and that I would be fine. He relented…and then purposely (I assume) waited too long to book the tickets so that flying would be the only option.

[3] He never shared this with me personally, I learned it from others in the organization after they had befriended me. They told me the humble backstory of their director with admiration. I couldn’t imagine those I met in the first group even broaching such a topic.

[4] There are Biblical examples that suggest towards this phenomenon (Luke 16:19-31, James 2:1-9, James 5:1-6, Matthew 19:16-30, 1 Timothy 6:6-19), and if you think hard some examples from contemporary politics may come to mind.

3 thoughts on “Actions that match their words

  1. Oscar Delaney

    Very impressive indeed from the second group, particularly that they somehow managed to create an ethos of mutual cooperation and reading with other students.
    Your point that being ‘poor’ in some sense of the term often leads to greater empathy when better off is an interesting one and I largely agree. The pertinent counterexample (exception proves the rule?) seems to be our current prime minister, whose relatively humble background doesn’t seem to promote pro-poor policies.


  2. Good analysis of what evokes empathy in some, and hollow rhetoric in others. I tend to agree that those who have themselves experienced significant need are better placed to show empathy to others. However, many who have been very needy go on to persecute, rather than care for others.

    There have also been many examples through history of those from a privileged background who have gone on to show exemplary care for the poor: Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa, Elisabeth of Thuringia, Mahatma Gandhi, William Wilberforce. What is common to all of these is their deliberate, intentional decision to meet and relate with the poor.

    I dare say it’s a combination of many factors that produces empathy, but I suspect relating with the poor themselves as people, whether through necessity or choice is one of the most important.

    Liked by 1 person

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