PNG Lesson 1: Hiding My Privilege
I am a privileged person. I always have been. I’ve experienced hardship, but money and education and power weren’t ever really on the chopping block. In comparison to many people in this unjust world, I have lived a life of relative wealth and ease.
While Crystal and I were preparing to move to Papua New Guinea, we left our jobs and raised financial support through churches and individuals across the nation. If you had asked me then about my privilege, I would have stood up on my pedestal as someone who had given it away. I had chosen to sacrifice a respectful career, and instead ask people for money! I sacrificed all of my privilege, didn’t I? Yet even then, I hadn’t really given away as much as I thought. See, when you have privilege, it goes with you everywhere. Sure, my bank account was emptier and my paychecks were irregular, but when I needed money to replace a broken washing machine in PNG, we had it wired to us within days. The point is that I am part of a culture—an environment, a community—where wealth is available. My friends had money to give. Their churches had budgets. We are a privileged people.
When Crystal and I first flew out to Saut Village, we consciously worked to hide our expensive possessions so we could blend into that remote environment. We sacrificed things most of our peers in the USA don’t ever consider—not just our possessions. We gave up running water and refrigeration. We gave up a mattress raised off the floor. We gave up restaurants. We sacrificed and sacrificed until it seemed we were empty of all our Western trappings. We fooled ourselves into thinking that we could blend in. We would put away our wedding rings and wield machetes, and be one of them. For over a year, Crystal and I worked tirelessly to live as simply as possible—making many little decisions, such as counting how many chocolate bars we’d let ourselves pack. We relentlessly buried our privilege deep underground where no one could find it.
The picture in this post shows Crystal with all the things we brought with us to the village for that first six weeks with the Ma Manda people. It really wasn’t much: dehydrated beef, eggs, dishes, a cheap mattress, our worst clothes, a kerosene lantern, a bucket water filter, and some basic tools. I loved this picture for a long time, because it felt like a badge of honor. It proved we could make it in the bush. What I would soon learn, though, is that even in Papua New Guinea you can’t easily give up your privilege.
One day, everything changed. On that unique day, a man barricaded himself in our house and threatened to kill me with an axe. Yes, you read that right. I’ll reserve the full story for another post, but what you need to know today is this: In those ensuing hours, I knew exactly where to dig up my buried privilege. We made the radio call and got a helicopter to deliver us to safety. When things got hard, we escaped. We didn’t have the money in our bank account to charter a helicopter, but we knew we would find it. We knew we could leave our possessions behind in the village, because we could always get more. I wasn’t a villager; I was a rich American.
I would later learn that many people in the village saw our simple accommodations in a different light. While we were congratulating ourselves about living in simplicity, they’d hang their heads in disgust at our close-fisted and stingy lifestyle. These villagers weren’t stupid: They knew we had more material wealth than we were showing. After all, our first encounter with them was from the door of a helicopter from the sky!! By hiding it, Crystal and I produced a barrier between us and them. “Why are the whites pretending?” they would ask one another. We toiled to keep up the illusion that we were all the same, until the mirage was lifted by an urgent helicopter. It finally dawned on me that we were lying—to them, and to ourselves.
Over the years, I’ve learned to find an imperfect balance. It’s good not to flaunt your wealth; it’s good to live simply. But it’s also good to be honest. By hiding my wealth, I was prevented from sharing it. How can I give away something I’m pretending not to have? I should have sought to fit in as an honored and trusted guest, instead of fighting tooth-and-nail to be a local. Today, I try to use that lesson in my work with refugees. I often feel the temptation to hide my privilege in order to connect with people, but now I know that this is the wrong approach. I am the product of my environment, and this isn’t something that should cause me shame. Instead, it’s something for me to invite people into. This is why I invite new friends into my home and send them away with gifts from my garden. When they ask how much my house is worth, I tell them unashamedly.
By hiding my wealth, I was prevented from sharing it. How can I give away something I’m pretending not to have?
For me, shame comes not from recognizing my privilege in a world full of injustice. The real shame would come from failing to be a conduit through whom blessings flow. Don’t hide your privilege! Strategize its usefulness! Honestly recognize what you’ve been blessed with so you can be open-handed as an agent for God-honoring change in a broken world.
Honestly recognize what you’ve been blessed with so you can be open-handed as an agent for God-honoring change in a broken world.