Where World Change Begins

Eugene Cho on why we need to start small—but can’t afford to stay there.

When faced with a world full of staggering need, even the most compassionate person can feel overwhelmed and unsure how to start shouldering real change. After all, can one person really change the tide on global poverty, war, disease and violation of human rights?

The answer, according to Eugene Cho, is yes and no.

And he would know. When Eugene and his wife, Minhee, launched One Day’s Wages (ODW) in 2009, they made a modest, personal request of those they told about it: Will you give one day’s income—a mere 0.4 percent of your annual salary—to combat extreme poverty?

Of course, one person’s donation is not enough to end global poverty. But when these individual commitments are combined, they add up. Just a few years later, in 2012, what individual people can do to make a difference has swelled to over $1 million in donations to feed, clothe, shelter and educate people living in the grip of poverty around the world.

We sat down with Eugene Cho to talk about the impact of starting small, his recent trip to the White House and why this generation needs to be less enamored with the idea of world change and more willing to be changed themselves.

"I want to accentuate the idea that you can’t do everything on your own. This whole Lone Ranger perspective is dangerous. I think the person [who] tries to do everything will do nothing well. We’re not able to go deep."

Compared to the rest of the world, Westerners are quite rich—and many would say that since God has blessed us, we should bless others. Would you say this metric of comparison is a healthy perspective?

I think there’s a downside with all things. There are pros and cons. We have to be careful of extremes. What is meant to be good, if we’re not careful, can become idolatrous; it can become our righteousness in some way. I think it’s important to be mindful about that.

But we cannot ignore the fact that 80 percent of the world lives on less than $10 a day. We just can’t ignore it. This fact is not [meant] to pummel people and to [impose] guilt—that’s not the intent—but when 1.4 billion people live on under 5 quarters a day, I think it has to make us think about the lack of equity in the world. Something is indeed askew with the world.

As Christians, it’s not to drive people to guilt, but I think if there are metaphorical tables that we should flip over, that would be one of them.

With so many needs in the world, how can Christians know where and how to focus their efforts?

As Christians, we have to be committed to the Gospel. And for me, the Gospel is not just personified in the four spiritual laws. It’s not just our ticket to heaven.

I’m not trying to diminish the importance of salvation, but I think it’s about a commitment to the Kingdom—that we don’t have to yearn and wait until that day.

As Christians, I think we should be about the work of God, the work of shalom, of restoration, of redemption—all of those things, in all of their simplicity and profundity. So, with that in mind, I think we trust the Holy Spirit to be working within us.

There are many causes, and I think that’s good, because there are many needs. But I would caution Christians and Christian organizations: Let’s stop pitting causes and ideas against each other. Trust that the Holy Spirit is working in the lives of people.

"I would love our generation to take more time to listen, to pray, to allow it to break us ... We should be about the marathon and not about the instant justice gratification."

One of the best pieces of advice I can give to people is, “You can’t do everything.” And I think one of the reasons we might be a little bit shallow in our generation is because we’re trying to invest ourselves in too many things. So, I would caution folks: Be informed and educated about many things, but go deep in a few things.

What makes the difference between passing moments of empathy and a commitment to act and fight for change?

I think part of it is that we live in a very narcissistic world. I think that narcissism is even more tempting today because of all the tools of new media and social media. I mean, we can’t have lunch without telling people what we’re eating or taking pictures of our food. I think the world can go on.

I think we just have to realize that we do live in a world where we’re challenged by that, and what I love to encourage people in is taking the step to shut up and listen for a while—to really listen.

I love Nehemiah’s response when he’s convicted about [the exile of] Israel. The Bible says in chapter 1, starting from verse 4, that he prays. He fasts. And if people do the math, historically, scholars say he does this for about three to four months. He just prays and fasts. He listens. It really breaks him.

I have a friend that says we don’t do justice—justice does us. I would love our generation to take more time to listen, to pray, to allow it to break us in some ways, as opposed to wanting to immediately make an impact. We should be about the marathon and not about the instant justice gratification.

This past July, you were invited to the White House for the inaugural Faith-Based Social Innovators Conference to speak on a panel about how people of faith can lead social change. How would you describe that experience?

It was one of the most phenomenal experiences. I’ve never been in a room of such diversity—in terms of ethnicity, age and certainly religious background. Just to be in that room and to look around and see people that I’ve never met—to see people that kind of look like me, some that look different than me, some from different faith backgrounds.

I think in our evangelical cultures—whether we intend to or not—we isolate ourselves in some ways, and we forget that there are other people, other faith groups, that are doing amazing things. So, I was blown away.

And it isn’t so much about the idea of other people’s best practices—that was there—but it was just humbling to see all the conversation about common ground. That’s a key phrase we hear a lot: How do we work with a common ground for the prosperity of our city, of the larger world? To see it, and to see people feed off its energy, was pretty amazing.

We sometimes have that Elijah complex where we go, “Am I the only one who cares about these things?” It’s dumb. It’s stupid. I’ve gone through it. And so that was encouraging—to see we are not alone in this fight.

The other thing I would say is the word “collaborate” came up constantly: We’ve got to collaborate together. We’ve got to work together. What’s the common ground together? How can I encourage you? How can you encourage me?

One of the best pieces of advice I can give to people is, “You can’t do everything.” Be informed and educated about many things, but go deep in a few things.

It reminded me of a quote that was shared—it’s an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

You’ve been known to speak about challenges you see this generation facing when it comes to their aid and justice methods. Could you say more about this?

I want to accentuate the idea that you can’t do everything on your own. This whole Lone Ranger perspective is dangerous. I think the person [who] tries to do everything will do nothing well. We’re not able to go deep.

I tend to consider our generation the NPR generation—“I heard it on NPR.” We’re not willing to do the work. We’re not willing to dig in. We’re the Wikipedia generation.

Don’t tell any of my friends who are authors, but I’ve not finished any of their books. I like starting books; I don’t finish. I like reading headlines; I don’t read the content. And so I think we can diagnose it, but we’ve got to change it in some way.

The other thing that I would say to encourage other folks who are wanting to impact change is this: You cannot ask people to do something you’re not willing to do. That kind of leadership does not resonate with people.

I say this not to sound boastful, but this has been the one thing to this day where I get the bulk of my criticism from folks. One of the reasons why I think One Day’s Wages has resonated with people is that we were convicted by the Holy Spirit a few years ago to give up a year’s wages. I did not like that conviction. I didn’t like it at all. It took me three years to kind of come to peace with that decision. Three years.

But I think that has really resonated with people. I’m not asking people to give up a year’s wages, but I’m not asking them to do something that our family hasn’t chosen to demonstrate for themselves.

For Christians today who care about global and local injustice and want to help, what would you say are some first steps to translate that compassion into action?

We do justice because of the Gospel, not the other way around. Everything that I aspire to do is because of this amazing thing called the Gospel that’s personified not in just theological jargon but in the person of Jesus.

It’s a journey. It took me—I’m 42—38 years, I think, to grow into my own skin. So, I want to leave a lot of room and grace to our younger brothers and sisters. And I think sometimes it requires journeying and experimenting and dabbling in different kinds of organizations.

But I think, eventually, if we want to make a deeper impact, and if we trust that God is at work in the larger world and in the larger body of Christ, it is important for us to be attentive to a few convictions.

There are three ways I would suggest going deep. Number one: How do you invest your treasure into that which you care about? Are you willing to pray for these things? Are you willing to invest your own money sacrificially?

That’s huge. No one likes to talk about that because money is something handled privately or inwardly. But the way that we spend our money is a great indication of our hearts—of where we place our treasure, as Matthew 6 says.

Secondly, are we really gaining intellectual capital? Do we know our stuff really, really well? I’ve met many folks that just love these issues, and then when I ask and go deeper, they just don’t have the ability to engage in a deeper conversation. Just shooting a nice, cute video isn’t going to change the world. I mean, you’ve got to dig very, very deep.

And finally, one last thing I would say is to go deep in a community of people who are also interested in [the social issue] as well. I believe God never speaks vision in isolation to one person.

So, if you feel like, “Man, am I the only person?”—you’re not. There are other people who care, and we have to collaborate with them.

3 Comments

Mariel Rieland

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Mariel Rieland commented…

This is beautiful. I attend Quest, Eugene's church in Seattle, and I can't say enough about the incredible vision and compassion that this man has for the world. Every week I am encouraged and emboldened to continue fighting for justice and taking part in the Ministry of Reconciliation of the Gospel. Thank you Eugene!! -Mariel

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Melissa Ahler

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Melissa Ahler commented…

Great article. Such a good reminder to not be discouraged when we don't see immediate results.

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Ed North

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Ed North commented…

I recently became aware of ODW and their work. I love what they are doing and fully support their initiatives. May more people follow suit and join in both their and similar efforts.
Another organization with similar goals is Spark Collective that rotates causes raising awareness and capital to help make a difference with other nonprofits effectively working in these areas.
Check out the facebook page at http://facebook.com/wearethesparkcollective

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