Sarah Arthur

slums in Nairobi Kenya Ftr TSP 507123771THE HAVE NOTS

I spent one semester of college in Nairobi, Kenya. Three days a week I attended classes at Daystar University with 800 students from all over the continent of Africa. The rest of the time I volunteered with an indigenous mission to street children.

Many of these children came from a nearby slum called Sinai, where thousands of people lived in makeshift shacks built from scraps of wood or metal and surrounded by piles of garbage. They had no electricity or running water. When it rained, the roofs leaked, and rats and spiders crawled inside to keep dry. The children were ragged and hungry; many were sick. And even though I felt powerless to help, their parents thanked me for coming, for bearing witness to their situation, for praying with them.



At the end of the semester, I returned home to the United States. It was Christmastime, and my parents picked me up at the airport. On the way home, we stopped to pick up some things at a discount warehouse. Not thinking much about it, I jumped out of the car and walked with my parents through the sliding double doors. Suddenly, I stopped. In front of me, from floor to ceiling, was an extravagance of abundance: food, clothing, household goods, medicine, furniture, appliances, toys—enough stuff to take care of Sinai for a year.

I took a couple of steps back, overwhelmed. Something that previously had been neutral or even fun to me—shopping—had become almost obscene. I muttered to my parents, “I’m sorry. I just can’t,” and walked back to the car. Sitting there in the cold and the dark, I asked forgiveness for my own thoughtless greed and for the greed of my country. The anger and grief I felt seemed to come from the very heart of God. At the same time, however, I knew that my family also needed toilet paper, bread, and medicine. I realized that if God called me to live and serve in the United States—and God has—I would always struggle to discern need from greed. I would face a battle every time I had to go shopping. My relationship with stuff would never be the same.



teen with sale sticker2 TSP 78745907To this day I can’t walk into a big box store without feeling repulsed. I prefer small, local stores and buy as many things as I can secondhand. But even at a thrift store it’s easy to over-shop, especially when something is only two dollars! So I make detailed shopping lists, and I don’t browse. It’s not easy, particularly when I shop with friends who have different values about consumption; but always in the back of my mind are memories of the crowded shacks of Sinai and the barefoot children in rags who became my friends.

In a world with such huge contrasts between the haves and the have nots, shopping is not a neutral activity. It is a battleground of the heart that requires careful attention to our own motives and desires. While we can’t avoid being consumers altogether (we have to buy toilet paper somewhere), we can pray for discernment about how God wants us to live as Christians in a broken world.



This week, make three lists: things you need to survive, things you need to fulfill your work/school/social commitments, and things you don’t need but would like to have. See how long you can go without buying anything new in the first two categories. (You may already have some of the things you need. If not, maybe you could borrow them from a friend or buy them at a thrift store.) For the third category, pray for a new perspective. What would happen if you never got those things? In what other ways could you use that money?

Sarah Arthur (, a freelance writer and speaker in Lansing, Michigan, writes about her Kenyan experience in her devotional book The One Year Daily Grind.

—from devozine (July/August 2011). Copyright © 2011 by The Upper Room®. All rights reserved.

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