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Love Your Neighbor

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"Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."
Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:25-28

"It's about love, it's about hope."
--L.E.A.D Uganda student Kusasira Moses

"Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." These seven words appear seven times in the Bible. The second Great Commandment is taken from the Law of Moses and is the "greatest principle of Judaism." Jesus declared the love of one's neighbor to be the second commandment beside the love of God. He declared, "There is none other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:31)

"Love they neighbor as thyself" is the spiritual core of western civilization. It forms the basis for the parable of the Good Samaritan. We yearn to be Good Samaritans. Our desire to help neighbors halfway around the globe has spawned a multi-billion dollar aid industry.

Unfortunately, although we are well-meaning, most aid falls far short of our lofty intentions. At best, it is piecemeal and ineffective. At worse, it sometimes aggravates the situation. Why do we accept minimal solutions -- band aids for third world orphans -- instead of giving them the best we have to offer? Is that what we tolerate for ourselves? For our children?

The problem is spiritual. We do not love our neighbors as ourselves because we don't see dispossessed Africans (or poor Americans for that matter) as our neighbors -- as like ourselves and our children. We view them as pitiful creatures who deserve our mercy. You've seen the ads: a small child sitting in the dirt with snot dripping from her nose. We distance ourselves from this image. This child is not equal to our own very talented and beautiful children.

That is why we dispense charity to them instead of justice. Let me be bold and attack the very concept of charity. If I could take charity and turn it into a photograph, the image would be throwing pennies at beggars. Charity is "good enough for them."

Charity may make us feel good (and powerful) but it robs people of their dignity and makes them dependent. It sets up a very damaging begging relationship. I was in Gulu a few months ago and numerous people told me they thought northern Uganda was worse off than before all the NGOs came. "The people have lost their spirit," one told me, "They just want hand outs." Those who have spent time in Uganda, especially in the north, know the begging mentality that has taken hold in areas where NGOs have been dispensing aid.

Children in Africa who have been traumatized by war, AIDS, and poverty do not need charity. They deserve justice. They do not require complicated programs that treat them as objects of pity. They need what we give our own children: a family, love, mentoring, support, and the chance to get the best education.

If we are going to live up to "love they neighbor as thyself," we must stop using a different set of paradigms for those we help in the third world, as if they are a different species. We need to start doing what we talk about so piously. We need to start loving these children as we love our own children.

At L.E.A.D Uganda, our extraordinary educational leadership program for vulnerable children, our core principle is we treat the children we serve like our own children. That spiritual component -- the love we give our student-members -- is what makes the LEAD approach so powerful. As my best friend, my brother, Mike Forzley, said, "I don't know if love conquers all, but love facilitates growth. It unlocks their hearts. It opens their minds."

Educational programs for Ugandan orphans invariably send them to sub-standard village schools. That can seem pretty useless. 80% drop out by 7th grade. There are a few that put children into better schools. But even those programs that send orphans and war affected children to top schools, do not always provide them with the level of care they would give their own children to help them excel.

In January of 2012, I accompanied our staff when they dropped 31 of our students at St. John Bosco Katende, a top primary school because we were shooting a film. We interviewed Sister Max, the Head Mistress. I asked Sister Max, how many other NGOs paid school fees for children at Katende. She told me there were six, three of which helped students from the war-torn north.

Then she volunteered this bit of disturbing information about the other programs, "They stop at paying school fees ... If they come here, they stop at the main office. They don't see how their children are (doing), and even knowing their (academic) performance. For them, it's just about paying fees."

We believe in going the distance. L.E.A.D Uganda's scholars attend the very best schools. We do whatever it takes to help them succeed. We furnish them with everything they need to excel: books, academic tutoring, clothing, medical care, leadership training, and discipline. We counsel them so they heal. We mentor them so they gain the entrepreneurial skills they need to help their communities. This high level of support enables our children to overcome all odds.

Going the distance works wonders. Our children excel academically. Last year Amos Omoya was the top student in the entire district where Katende is located on his national 7th grade Primary Leaving Exam. (Districts in Uganda are like states in the U.S.) He was honored by the Government. In the past four years, four of our students received four full government scholarships to university in Uganda, and two others scholarships to attend colleges in India and America. This past term, two of our upper class high school students received perfect 20 out of 20 (A-plus) grades, Three more received straight A's. Six of our 8th graders received perfect 8 in 8 (A-plus) scores. Our primary students also excel.

Our poverty-stricken students, victims of AIDS and war, child labor, and abuse have gained the skills and confidence to be leaders. Their peers, who are the sons and daughters of cabinet ministers, lawyers, doctors, and business executives, elect L.E.A.D students to leadership positions. At Katende, for example, two of the three student leaders this year are from our program. Bedogwar Ozala is the Head Prefect (Student Body President) and Titus (Tito) Seron is Head Boy. At Budo Junior, another elite primary school, Victoria Nakasumba became the first poor girl from a slum area ever elected Head Girl. Her election marks the second time in three years a L.E.A.D Uganda student has held the one of the top student positions at Budo.

"L.E.A.D students are different from the other children. It's because of the counseling you do, because of the effort you put in. That's why they also do their best -- work hard. You are producing good fruits," says Sister Max, "Many of them are lacking parents, but because of the love you show them, because of the efforts you are putting in to help them with their weaknesses, you help them grow and become good students."

It is time to stop patting ourselves on the back because we have good intentions. Motivation does not matter, only results matter. Winston Churchill once remarked, "It is no use saying, 'We are doing our best.' You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary."

What is necessary is for us to change our attitude towards aid. Most aid does not work because you can not build a solid house on a weak foundation. Love is the foundation. We need to learn to love the children who are recipients of our compassion as much as we love our own children. L.E.A.D is able to transform forgotten children into leaders because the children we serve know we love them. It touches them deep in their souls. Our love transforms them. Everything flows from that. When we truly love everyone on this small, blue and brown planet as ourselves, we will be able to craft better solutions to the issues of poverty, war, and AIDS that plague African children.