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Merry Christmas — Now comes the hard part

Indonesia, December 26, 2009

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Lance Dickie

Seattle Times
December, 2009

The Christmas spirit endures beyond the holiday through people helping others. Mercy Corps is in Indonesia five years after a devastating tsunami struck the country.

Merry Christmas. Now comes the hard part.

Oh, not those bruising post-holiday sales, or even paying for the gifts under the tree. Living the faith.

As the carol says, there are 12 days of Christmas, so set aside presents and extra cookies for the journey toward Epiphany on Jan. 6.

Epiphany acknowledges what is only hinted at by the birthday party. The mewling infant in the manger came into the world to change lives. Jesus grows up to proclaim by word and deed that an uncomfortable amount of the responsibility falls on you and me.

Geeze, I hate that part.

The Bible makes clear Jesus will not be around forever, but the poor will always be with us. The point is not that poverty persists, but the duty to serve is unending.

Indeed, the easy way out is to solemnly nod that the poor will always be among us, and use that excuse to ignore those who need our help. Hey, maybe God does not love them, or they did something wrong. Yeah, or better yet, if God really, really loves you, God will reward a believer's faith with a new car, or at least one for the preacher.

Nothing is so vulgar as a prosperity gospel that finds traction every generation or so. The theology of God as a cash machine.

Helping others attracts a tenacious spirit and a capacity for hard work. Most of us — OK, me — quickly burn out, the flames of good intentions reduced to an ember after the check is mailed, or volunteering competes with easy distractions after a long day.

This season provides a poignant reminder of what good people continue to do after the rest of us to turn our attention to other things.

Five years ago on Dec. 26, a tsunami rolled out of the Indian Ocean to claim 230,000 lives across 13 countries. Almost half of those killed were in Indonesia. Damage to homes, livelihoods and economies was equally devastating.

Mercy Corps is still in Indonesia. After initial infusions of cash and expertise to feed people, provide clean water and sanitation and rebuild homes and roads, the agency stayed to put people back to work. Businesses and banks were nurtured to help the survivors help themselves.

Mercy Corps, based in Portland, with an office in Seattle, goes to the toughest places on the planet. From Afghanistan to the bleakest corners of Africa, the agency's resources and talent are present.

Founder Dan O'Neill, a 1972 University of Washington graduate, was moved toward his life's work by volunteer stints after college in East Africa and other places. But a refugee crisis in 1979 along the border between Cambodia and Thailand launched a career.

After years of brutal repression under the Khmer Rouge, thousands fled Cambodia as the murderous regime faltered. The result was a human disaster that horrified the world.

O'Neill told me he immediately started working his father-in-law's Rolodex, inviting influential people to a meeting with his in-laws, Pat and Shirley Boone, at their Beverly Hills home. O'Neill even made a brash call to the White House, inviting first lady Rosalynn Carter. She agreed to come, had to cancel, but sent a White House representative. O'Neill was invited to the White House, where he laid out his plans.

A fast and furious one-year task force had O'Neill raising money and dispensing it to nongovernmental organizations on the ground. By July 1981, O'Neill had incorporated Mercy Corps. A global, nonsectarian enterprise to help people was fully under way, fueled by a combination of faith-based inspiration and youthful zeal.

Mercy Corps is a marvel for all the work it does and the confidence earned for its stewardship of other people's money. Mercy Corps enjoys high ratings from agencies that screen and review philanthropic organizations.

Helping Mercy Corps help others. Christmas spirit, long after the tree loses its needles.