by Shirley Schneider  |  15 December 2019  |   

It all started with chocolate that morning. Doesn’t everything start and end with chocolate? It seems so anyway, when you are a die-hard chocolate addict like me. And that’s not funny at all.

So there I am, sitting in my comfy swivel rocker seeking inspiration for my day—soft throw on lap, Bible and devotional materials stacked around, and a few squares of Dove to tide me over until breakfast. Perfect, right?

When suddenly I am distracted by a desire to know more about the claims I’ve barely heard regarding child labor in the chocolate industry. Google, you are my friend. I think.

An hour later, I am spiraling into a whirlpool of devastation, and wondering how my life is going to change. I can’t begin to grasp the suffering of people at the bottom of the chocolate production chain—especially the estimated 1.8 – 2.1 million children. They say many are torn from everything familiar and the people who love them as early as age 5 (though mostly 12-16)—sold for a few dollars, perhaps, by families who can’t afford to feed them. Promises of income and improved lives are offered. Many are taken to live (barely) in miserable work camps. They labor 14 hrs/day with inadequate food. Rain… heat… mosquitos… pesticides… beatings. Beatings! They carry one hundred-pound loads, wield chain saws and machetes, and inevitably injure themselves. They can’t escape for fear of personal and family repercussions, and even the possibility of losing their lives. They are dispensable, disposable, and expendable, it seems, to someone. (Search Google for “child labour in the chocolate industry.”)

The ILO (International Labour Organization) defines child labour as “ work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential, and their dignity; and that is harmful to physical and mental development.” It interferes with their schooling and their future.

Look into the eyes of these children and see the withering of their souls, their despair. The end of hope and possibility. Look into their eyes with me, and “rage, rage, against the dying of the light!”

This is not history. This is today.

With all my heart I want to believe these things are not true. Already I feel my denial rising. This can’t be. Someone must be beating loudly on a very small drum. Maybe it’s just political hype. But now that I know, or think I might, I can’t turn away. If this is real, I must deal with it in my own heart and experience.

Changing screens on my mostly-faithful iPhone, I start texting my daughter who rises at the crack of dawn with her two lucky little early-birds. She is a woman who cares, and she helps me think.

Susie, I’ve been reading about child labor. I started investigating chocolate, because, well, you know…

And then, get this… Google starts spitting info about all kinds of stuff. Coffee… cotton… rubber… palm oil… the fashion industry… and even cashews! It talks about errant retailers such as Walmart, Victoria’s Secret, Gap, and Apple. (Really? My Mac?)

I go on… Slavery, human trafficking, sweat shops. Abuse, injustice, and exploitation of all kinds. This is evil!

Susie, what can I do? What can I do?! I don’t even want to know these things!!

We go blithely through our lives buying what we need and want, for the most part, not realizing what might be involved in keeping our lifestyles afloat. We look for bargains, of course, responsible humans and good stewards that we are, and don’t stop to think about who is being squeezed.

Susie pushes back… Mom! Stop! You can’t fight all the battles. And you are not blithe! You can’t possibly fix everything. Not even “AOC” can. So pick one issue that resonates with you, and just do your best with everything else. I think when you acknowledge the bad things and take what action you can, you help the world if you focus on the things that bring you joy. It’s a challenge not to spiral. (She knows me.) Life is a gift!

Mom, perfection is unachievable unless you’re Jesus. Besides, this world is ultimately God’s responsibility. We are only expected to do our best (whatever that is) and have gratitude. And we mostly fail at that too. It’s OK!

Gratitude, Susie? Every time I feel grateful, I collapse into sadness for someone who doesn’t have the blessing that I am being thankful for. We don’t want to close our minds against reality, or our hearts to compassion.

And the conversation goes on. Today, tomorrow, everyday.

I look out the window. Here I am, in a personal funk about turning 70, wondering about my future, facing health challenges, wrestling with spiritual questions, and somewhat disillusioned with life, myself, the church, our country, the world, and (could it be?) God.

But what is my funk in the face of world horrors? And who is this God who promises so much, and delivers so little? At least, sometimes that’s how it seems, I hate to say, when it comes to the pain and suffering endemic on this earth.

And I wonder… are emotional boundaries just little protecting, numbing walls we build around ourselves? How does the gospel of Jesus intersect with these issues? I mean, what is God doing about these children? And what am I supposed to do?

Actually, let’s leave the endlessly throbbing “God question” for another day. It’s just too big. But what about me?

On the ottoman next to my Bible are the latest copies of Spectrum and Adventist Today. Now there’s a tiny part of the problem. Hang in here… this is going to connect.

I feel anger begin to nag at me. I’ve had an ongoing bone to pick with church discussions anyway. It’s easy to gnaw at it just now. I want to say to those of us who spend hours reading, discussing, arguing, writing, and speaking about the things of God and the church… stop for a minute! Take a break from analyzing, obsessing, or trying to convince someone of something. If we would simply allocate some of that time to actually get involved in the world’s needs, the world would be a better place. Wouldn’t it, though!

It’s almost like, “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness…” Matt 23:23 NASB

”Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones…” Matt 23:25 NASB

Seriously, you are not scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites! But it’s me here, realizing that I, too, am plagued with dead men’s bones. I can feel them rattling. And when I calm down, I realize that this is probably what the publications are trying to address. The discussions are valid. We need to talk about the dead men’s bones. And, even more, we need to talk about Jesus, and how the dead bones come to life again. And we do. But we also need to take action, don’t we?

What if we all determine to do something to get involved in the needs of people in specific and practical ways? What if we tithe our time (along with the mint and dill) and invest it in our communities? What if we make the effort to figure out how to address real world needs, not simply distribute bandaids, or make political/gratuitous/or self-gratifying gestures?

I can decide to buy fair trade items, and that is good. But is it effective to boycott someone’s only source of employment and income at the moment? Perhaps so. Because we do vote with our dollars. But how much more helpful it would be to find ways of improving the lot of those who are forced into untenable situations because of their desperate need.

ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency) has been my shining star through the years. And don’t tell me anything bad about them just now. I want them to drill another well, provide a small business opportunity, and teach someone how to read or garden. They need our support. And there are many other worthy organizations, and ways to discover which ones do the most effective work.

Recently, I spent an evening in San Francisco with a group of mostly older women, listening as author Anne Lamott encouraged and inspired us with thoughts about how Christians can support each other and those around us. She mentioned how much anger and fear she senses in the groups of people she speaks with. She talked of feeling powerless, bewildered, and discouraged in the face of huge world needs and seemingly insurmountable problems. We are all desperate for hope!

She encouraged us to do the little things. “Share a cup of cold water.” “Give pencils to the children.” We can band together in healing communities, which is what churches can be. Some of the members in her church spend whole nights with homeless people sharing hot tea and granola bars. (Maybe I can share my fair-trade chocolate instead of eating it.) At the end of the evening we stood and sang with great good cheer, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine…” We wanted to clap, stomp, and whistle, though we didn’t.

And maybe that is the answer for me today. It’s about little lights. Even a little light will expose and defeat a little evil. Little words, little efforts of kindness, can ease burdens and make a day brighter. Our little grandson, Quinn, lifts his big brown eyes expectantly as he pleads for ice cream. “Just a little, not a lot, just a little.” It’s my mantra now.

I really don’t know what to do about the big issues. We can think further about those. But in the meantime, I can switch to fair-trade chocolate. I can take cookies and socks to the homeless, or join one of the many organizations in my town that helps struggling people. I can assist a neighbor, be kind to a retail clerk, notice people, and simply be friendly. I can slip a donation in the mail, or into the pocket of a needy friend. I can march, protest, or write to my senators and representatives, though I am convinced that more often than not, little 1:1 encounters have a more meaningful impact.

When everything seems dark and hopeless, music reaches my heart like nothing else, and what comes to mind just now is the poem of St. Francis of Assisi. You may hear familiar music in your head as you think on these words. Imagine little lights shining in a great darkness. Think about chocolate and children. Look at real people in their suffering. We can actually make a difference, as cliched as that sounds, little by little. Any time, any place, any way.

And isn’t that what we want?

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled, as to console,
to be understood, as to understand,
to be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born
to eternal life.

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Shirley Schneider grew up in five different Adventist college communities, eventually graduating from Southern Adventist University with a degree in nursing. Now retired, she wrestles with angst and addiction in Santa Cruz, California. She rejoices in family, beaches, the fragrance of live oak and pine on a dewy morning, and good books. 

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