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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Starfish

Written by: on February 12, 2015

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It would have been really easy to write this week’s blog about mission teams going into Haiti. Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy is made for Haiti. In a land that has been deforested beyond measure, where people have suffered for centuries, where the environment has been all but depleted, it is easy to feel lost and without hope. Good intentions have gone awry. Thousands of relief workers brought an abundance of goods following the massive 2010 earthquake and subsequent catastrophic hurricanes, but they soon left after meeting only the immediate needs. They focused on immediate survival with no afterthought to sustainability. As the authors attributed to Al Gore, we are a culture of distractions, and the next shiny objector celebrity drama, or natural disaster, took the workers, news crews, and potential leadership away.[1]

This book is made for mission teams going to Haiti. I spent years with numerous teams from all over the USA, and they all had one thing in common. Within 48 hours of landing in Haiti, at least one mission team member will invariably ask, “Is what we’re doing even making a difference? Why are we here? There’s too much need. Are we even making a dent in the need?” They are overwhelmed. The colors, the smells, the sights and the sounds overrun their senses and emotions. Their hearts are heavy by the profuse poverty. They question if they should return to work in the same community and help the Haitians with various needs. Or maybe they should continue installing as many clean water systems in as many communities as possible. And many of them simply stop and never come back again. But some listen. Some listen to their hearts and listen to the thankful voices of hope of those they are serving. As the authors Macy and Johnson wrote, “Active hope does not require optimism; we can apply it even in areas where we feel hopeless. The guiding impetus is intention; we choose what we aim to bring about, act for, or express. Rather than weighing our chances and preceding only when we feel hopeful, we focus our intention and let it be our guide.”[2]

It would be easy to write this week’s blog about my “go-to” story for mission teams in Haiti. I often find myself listening for hours as team members process their feelings, and in the end, though it may sound trite, I often tell the story of the starfish. You know the story:

Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions. Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching.  As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea.  The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning!  May I ask what it is that you are doing?” The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.” The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.” The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”[3]

Hearing that story inspires intentional hope and gratitude. As this week’s authors wrote, when our hearts come from a place of gratitude, we tend to honor pain in the world. Then seeing with new eyes, we go forth with hope to make a difference.[4] This is an amazing cycle. When we make a difference, when a life is saved through clean water or the ability to turn on a light bulb and read a book at night, the cycle begins again. Through the changed life, gratitude results. “When we come from gratitude, we become more present to the wonder of being alive in this amazing living world, to the many gifts we receive, to the beauty we appreciate.”[5] I have seen it happen. A teenage boy on the brink of despair witnesses a team installing a clean water system. He drinks the water, hears the story of Jesus being the Living Water for our bodies and souls. He partakes in fellowship with the team, and he stays up at night reading his new Bible by the light he can now turn on. He sees with new eyes, not only because of the light from the light bulb, but because of the new life he has been given and the example set by his new friends from America. He studies to learn and to give himself a chance to not only survive to the next day but to make a difference in the life of his community. And when the team returns, they find him working in the school, teaching the younger children to read. This is a cycle of hope, and if we become distressed and overwhelmed by the work to be done, we will never have the chance to change the life of the person sitting in front of us.

As you all could have figured out by now, I am the eternal optimist. I live by the starfish story. But, active hope goes beyond optimism, and in fact can flourish without optimism. Active, intentional hope and gratitude should include optimism where possible, but must also encompass pain and empathy, and, at times, even an acknowledgment of hopelessness. Choosing to be intentional and remaining focused on those intentions as we act, rather than basing our choices on our chances of success or failure, frees us from limitations in our giving and opens the door for deeper and more meaningful mission opportunities and impacts.

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[1] Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012), 25.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley.

[4] Macy & Johnstone, 37.

[5] Ibid., 38.

About the Author

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Ashley Goad

Ashley is the Global Missions Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana. She's a UNC fanatic, Haiti Enthusiast, Clean Water Activist, Solar Power Supporter... www.firstserves.org www.solarunderthesun.org www.livingwatersfortheworld.org

7 responses to “The Starfish”

  1. Yes! I love that starfish story. It does matter to the individual that you affect and touch. I may have a sour taste to this whole “save the planet” mentality but I do love the whole “save the individual” mentality. Just one lost soul coming into the Kingdom and the angels rejoice! I want to give my life toward saving the world one person at a time. I am willing to work toward that end and if the improvement of the environmental conditions are a side affect then “even-more-better.”

  2. mm Deve Persad says:

    Ashley, your optimistic view of life is certainly infectious and no doubt those around you benefit immensely. One of the elements of this book that I did appreciate was the focus on gratitude. I can’t remember whether it was in here or another book/article I was reading that said something to the effect: “through gratitude we learn to appreciate what is present rather than than focus on what we think we lack.” From a biblical perspective it’s like learning to see and breathe in rhythm with what God is doing. Which is what I sense when I read your stories, beyond the starfish. Where is it harder to help people learn to be grateful, In Haiti or at our home church?

    • mm Ashley Goad says:

      Deve, what a fantastic question… I think so often we take things – life, people, material possessions – for granted. It is not till a member steps off the plane in Port Au Prince that they see what they have to be thankful for in their everyday life. I cannot get over the dramatic life changes I have witnessed when someone steps out of their ordinary everyday life to go and spend a week in Haiti. They never, almost never, come back the same. I think there are many reasons for this, but one is they see the hope and joy in those they meet and realize that is something missing in their own lives. Gratitude is so underrated yet so important. How do we channel that attitude of gratitude as the memories of the trip fade?

      • mm Deve Persad says:

        That is a good question Ashley…the answer, I think, is harder to find for those who only go on one of these trips. For them it becomes an experience from which memories can fade. But for those who continue to go, they seem to be able to see deeper into what is happening and slowly learn to value the differences they see, and in turn start to bring those values into their “normal” lives…that’s been my observation so far…

  3. Miriam Mendez says:

    Ashley, Yes, you are the eternal optimist–and this is wonderful! Thank you! Your post was very insightful—I learned so much about what you are doing in Haiti (and I’m sure there is a lot more….) As I continued reading this sentence caught my attention: “This is a cycle of hope, and if we become distressed and overwhelmed by the work to be done, we will never have the chance to change the life of the person sitting in front of us.” So true, often times we get tunnel-vision to the work before us–that we are doing or perhaps started to do to help others or love others—instead of caring for the life of the person sitting in front of us — we move them aside because know they are getting in our way of doing our “work”. Hmm there is something terribly wrong with that. Thank you for reminding us what is truly important—the person in front of us and the starfish! Nice!

    • mm Ashley Goad says:

      Miriam, want to come to Haiti? 🙂 It has taught me more than any book on a number of subjects – but most importantly the ministry of presence and how to be present with those are with us. I seem to practice it so well when “in country,” but as soon as I step off the plane back into the culture of distraction, the concept leaves me… How can I/we change that? 🙂

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