No Money No Respect

Recently I took a trip to Liberia, West Africa.  I spent most of my trip in the Suakoko District of Bong County, about a 3 hour drive northeast of Monrovia.  Before headed up country, I spent the first night with my traveling companions in Monrovia at the guest house of a prominent church denomination.

Waking up the next morning, not suffering too badly from jetlag, we went to a few meetings.  The first was an accidental meeting, because we were not actually looking for the Director of Evangelism who shares a rather small office with both the Director of Outreach and the Director of Diakonate services. We were, instead, looking for the bishop, whose office was just beside this one.  But, we passed time with the Director, waiting on the bishop to arrive.

Sitting on the other side of the desk from me, I had a good view of him, and I began my process of observation and assessment, as I do with most religious leaders and even authors.  I want to know how our theologies might mingle (or collide). I first noted that he was in the office on a Saturday–an possible indicator of many things, two of the primary ones being (and not mutually exclusive) 1) a person is a workaholic, or 2) a person has too much work to do for a 5-day work week. He wore a long-sleeved, button-up shirt and long pants. (Monrovia was in the “winter” season, but it still got up to 90 F that day!) This could be due to the expectations of his position or perhaps a feeling of self-import, or maybe he just has this one nice outfit and hit happens to be long-sleeved. (Later, I noted that the bishop wore a more casual, short-sleeved, tribal smock.)

Continuing my observation and (at this point, simultaneous) assessment, I noted the two cell phones he carried, one having a particularly loud ringtone. I also took a moment to sense his demeanor: He seemed just like any other proud man, though not appearing to be arrogant. What he talked about gave me a clue as to what he valued. He began to explain to us the recent pairing in his denomination of evangelism and outreach, which he claimed follows Jesus’ model in the Gospels. (This is a point to which I agreed very much–proclamation and action are inseparable! So, I thought he and I might share similar theological views.) All along I was sizing him up, allowing my first impression to solidify into something more, when I saw it: “$.”

A dollar symbol! It became my distraction for the rest of our time in his office. The rest of the group now carried the burden of keeping conversation. I was checked-out, busy collecting evidence and building a case.

Crafted in gold and carefully placed on a black, precious stone face atop a large golden ring. It was wrapped around his right ring finger. I quickly searched to find any other jewelry on the man. A slender gold band was on the left ring finger. A watch with a golden face and a few golden links on either side was fastened to the left wrist. My eyes darted back to the “$.” Could I confirm it? The room was dark, and the only light available was that which had already traveled through clouded atmosphere, window and curtain, and now rested on the man’s back, casting a shadow onto the very desk on which his hand (and the ring) rested. I did not want to stare (or be found out!), so I glanced over at my traveling companions to see if any of them had locked eyes with the ring also. Maybe if any of them had seen what I saw, they would have slightly raised eyebrows, or eyes squinting just a little, and body leaned in to catch a better look. Nope. They had all done a stellar job at keeping eye-contact, and (fortunately for me) an ongoing conversation. My eyes went back to the ring, and I surmised, taking into account the rest of the evidence–a Saturday working, a nice shirt on a hot day, a gold watch-face–that it was a “$.”

I began to make excuses for the man. “Culturally,” I though, “maybe it is a symbol for something else.” Yet, that is unlikely, given that in this land the USD is recognized and able to be used in place of LRD. Even if it was a symbol for something else, the fact of the matter is that this man carries some symbol of something on a precious stone on a large golden ring on his ring finger. It must be important, or he would not wear it.

A money symbol! As best I could, short of asking him, or grabbing his hand for a close-up, I confirmed it. My five minutes of quick-firing thoughts halted by the realization that this man had a marriage symbol on the same finger on his left hand, yet carried the money symbol on the ring finger of his right hand. The very hands, the very body he uses to preach and practice the Good News of the Kingdom of God (which he referenced in those words (!)) bore this symbol, which must have been close to his heart.

My thoughts rounded-out into judgement. The inconsistency of his words and his attire (or my assessment of it at least) lent me nearly guilt-free judgment:  Here is this man talking about working among the urban and rural poor, talking about being snubbed by kinds in the “ghetto” (his words) who he wanted to help. In a final pronouncement of judgment, I though: “Well, maybe they saw your heart.”

The bishop arrived, then, and we were ushered into his office. Afterwards, our group began the journey up to Bong County. On the way there, we passed by many cars and trucks that had sayings painted on bumpers or back windows. Some of them said things like: “God is with us” or “Why me?” One vehicle which passed us read: “No Money No Respect.”  I do not know how that was supposed to be taken, but I assumed it was meant to be read that if one did not have money, then something about the culture dictated that person did not either get or deserve respect. (I tend to think it was that the person did not “get” respect, an interpretation which lends itself toward a cultural necessity to struggle in order to have some money so that a person might have respect… the kind of respect that can change things… the kind of respect a village chief might have.)

Maybe “No money, no respect,” was the cultural rule that the Director of Evangelism lived under.

I began to feel a little nauseous when I suddenly realized my utter inability to see this man’s heart. Almost instantly, I began to wonder what he had observed and assessed regarding me. Maybe he saw the 2 suitcases, laptop bag and backpack being unloaded into my room the night before (without knowing that the laptop was being carried for someone else and that much in my second suitcase was to be left in Liberia before my return). Maybe he saw my nice shorts, tee-shirt, shoes, and earrings.  Maybe he saw me give $10 like it was nothing to our driver to exchange for 710 LRD. Maybe if this fellow had sized me up, too, he would have felt he had ample enough evidence to judge me. Maybe just the fact that I am from the U.S. validates his judgment. (I wont go any farther with that last statement.)

I leave some room that my senses may have deceived me, and that the man may not have been wearing a golden dollar sign after all. So, my judgment is not necessarily on this man in particular, but is for sure on the concrete idea of a prominent denominational leader wearing such a ring. And, in that case I am still conflicted between 1) a compassionate heart that ought not judge because I recognize cultural rules in his life and in my own that make both of us theologically inconsistent with the message of the Gospel, AND 2) a heart burning with prophetic message that God desires not that we accumulate golden rings or allow money to earn our respect, but rather that we do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.

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