“How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.”
There is a story that is used often when we talk about problem-solving, specifically in health equity, called the “River Story” or “The Upstream Problem.” In case you haven’t heard this one, it goes like this: “A man was fishing in the river when he noticed someone was drowning. He pulled them out and attempted to resuscitate them. Shortly afterwards, he noticed another person in the river and saved them too. He then noticed another, and another and another. Soon he was exhausted and realized he would not be able save all of the drowning people.
He went further upstream to find out why all these people were falling into the river.
On arriving further upstream, he discovered a broken bridge was causing people to fall into the river and end up drowning where he had been fishing. He decided he would fix the bridge to stop them falling in, instead of fishing them out after they were already drowning.”
I imagine that the thinking of the fisherman downstream sounded like the cries of Habakkuk shared above. He is an active participant in the rescue efforts downstream, witnessing the devastation and searching for a solution. The man fishing at the river could have easily complained about how the people carried down the river were inconveniencing him, disrupting the fish and his attempts to relax, and told them to help themselves out of the river. Instead, he chose to help them. At this point, he could have patted himself on the back for doing a good job of helping people, and perhaps he did for a time. When he got tired he could have picked up his pole and gone home, thinking, “I’m not the one falling in the river. They need to help themselves or their friends should come help them.” Instead, he sought out the deeper issue: What is causing these victims to fall into the river? The man went looking for answers; he did his research, going upstream to find the true problem. When he found the bridge, he could have shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, I didn’t build that bridge so it’s not my fault.” Instead, he decides to fix the bridge. He understands that once the bridge is repaired, it will be safer for all people.
One of the problems is that our society, the church included, likes staying downstream. We pride ourselves in getting a good return on our investment. Generally, we like numbers and statistics and tangible results so that we can see how many people have been impacted by our efforts.
This is not to say that the work we do downstream is not important. Of course, people need food, shelter, financial stability, and education. The problem becomes when we neglect to go upstream to find the source of the problem. If we stay downstream, we put our own pride before the needs of the people. If we don’t seek to find the source of the problem, then we will exhaust ourselves on the rescue efforts, ignoring the possibility for long-term solutions.
Our instinct when faced when something this stressful is to back away, shut down, or distract ourselves with other matters, but we cannot afford to sit idly by with our fishing poles, watching as people fail to survive in the same system that allows us to thrive. Church, we are called to go upstream and seek out the problem so we can work toward a solution. Only then will we be able to truly further God’s kin-dom. Only then will we realize that a bridge that is not accessible to all people is not a bridge worth having. Only then will we understand that to create a path for all people will require the voice of all people.
I encourage you to continue with the personal inventory that I emailed on Monday as it will be vital for us as we work on this upstream problem. On our journey upstream, we are invited to sit with the discomfort that may come with what we find. We will find that there is a need to listen to the cries of those saying “How long, Lord?” and a need for widespread healing in our world, and a need to let go of our self-assurance and pride for the good of all people. So we must go.
For a world with more love and less strife, we pray. Amen.