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Firework of dollars

There is a sweet, gray-haired 70 year old woman with a pretty smile named Elena on the corner of Aurora Blvd. and General Aguinaldo Ave. I see her nearly every day. She travels ten miles from her slum home to beg for money in the high traffic Araneta Center area. I always stop for a moment to ask how she is. We have a cordial conversation. Elena asks about my newborn baby, And how is your wife? She always looks so pretty! She asks if I am having a good day, and squinches her cheeks with delight when I reply in Tagalog. Mabuti naman po. 

She has picked a good spot in the bustling city of sixteen million people. Not that everyone is overly generous, but every coin counts, and adds up. I’d say she’s doing pretty well for herself—relatively speaking, of course, pretty well as far as the beggar’s lifestyle goes, pulling in more than a hundred Pesos a day.

She makes me think about the lifestyle that I have been blessed with. She makes me consider finances and food and entertainment and all the good pleasures of this world. She makes me feel rich.

But opulence is a funny thing, a sticky conversation full of loopholes and relativity. The rich announce that they’re poor. The poor makes you think they are rich by their amiable smiles. The middle class always want more. Beggars are always reaching for another coin. Millionaires never have enough.

So how wealthy are you? Where do you fall on the global rich list? Here are five ways to get rich, or realize that you already are.

Walk less than fifty meters northeast from Elena’s spot on Aurora Blvd. to watch infants sleeping in makeshift cardboard boxes strewn across the sidewalk. They are usually asleep next to an older sibling, a toddler or ten year old. Traffic is heavy with personal vehicles and public jeepneys, and the humidity collects billions of smoggy molecules, stuffing the black soot inside tiny, helpless nostrils. You can’t believe how dirty the poor baby’s cheeks are. Their mother’s empty eye follows me as I walk past them with a hampered cringe in each step. I’m pretty sure she’s wondering how rich I am.

Take a twenty-four hour overnight sleeper bus from Kunming city to The Edge, the northern point of the Golden Triangle. Home to the former headhunting Wa tribe, the landscape is dotted with lush poppy fields and grass huts. Methamphetamine production and ethnic genocide (amongst a myriad of other tragedies) have ushered in a tidal wave of poverty. Spend the night in a Wa hut, sip some of the local rice wine jet fuel, converse with a toothless old man puffing a silver pipe, and pinch the children’s cheeks as you hand them gifts of balloons and used clothing. The wide open wet skies outside will remind you that you don’t have it that bad after all.

Set out for a shopping day in Kunming city like any decent consumer. But watch your step as you stroll under the branches that hang over the Chinese souvenir and trinket venders at the Bird and Flower Market. Fate is not so fair to every human being, you will see. I have always wondered about that man’s story—the legless man with polio shriveled arms, contorted in inhuman posture, with hollow tin can laid in front of his face. When I see him, I am shocked and saddened and pissed off. His gnarled vertebrae is a hump of bone and flesh, pathetic and hopeless. On a busy day at the market, you may not even see him until it’s almost too late as you nearly trip over him and despise yourself because of it.

Watch from inside your vehicle as the hoard of excited children run toward you, smiling, waving, What’s your name? hugging your leg, Will you be my friend? Your car has not even come to a complete stop yet, and you are surrounded. The moment your foot steps on the Liberian soil, you are engulfed in a swarm of loveably curious little children. Some are late in their teen years. Others are toddlers. The sun beats down on you as the African temperature soars. A five year old boy named James holds your hand as he looks up at you with those big, black eyes. He has seen war. He has felt loss. His parents are gone. His eyes are more articulate than he himself, and they tell a story of hope and longing. Suddenly your first world problems seem more trivial than ever.

Look to your right, south toward the Mekong River, as the swooping valley bursts with greens and yellows. Banana and pineapple plantations as far as the eye can see, and the smoke of a thousand villages rise in the dusky purple haze. The Yao tribe is one of the poorest of the poor people groups in Southeast Asia. Tonight you are sitting on an unnaturally short stool, crouching over a splintery wooden table laden with boiled cat, leafy water spinach, and raw grub worms. Your stomach churns as you scan the delectable delicacies with worry in your eyes. But you are an honored guest, and they are serving you the best that they can manage. You squeeze your chopsticks awkwardly, pinch a glob of bone and flesh, and chew slowly, savoring every unique flavor as your host scrutinizes with innocuous eyes.

Take a moment to pause and reflect. Linger a little longer than usual in front of the mirror. Inspect your jeans. Scrutinize your shirt. Examine your shoes. Survey your stuff behind you in the room, your electronic devices, your gadgets, appliances, furniture, light fixtures, wall paint. Perhaps a sudden epiphany will shock you with a thought like, Wow, I am not as poor as I thought. Yes, there are bills and obligations, and it always feels like you wallet is filled with more receipts than cash. But that may simply be because you only use plastic! Just a moment more. Linger there in front of the mirror a little longer. Are you poor or rich? Are you well off or just getting by or keeping up with the Jones’s? If you are reading this, the reality is, you are most likely in the the top ten percent of the world’s rich.

Confirm how rich you are on the Global Rich List.

I’m sorry if this blog was deceiving, and you haven’t walked away with newfound wealth or secret steps to becoming rich. But I hope that you realize how blessed and well off you truly are. Now, why not find a cause to give toward.

To whom much is given, much will be required. 

Perhaps it’s time to become more intentional with how you use your wealth for the benefit of both yourself and others.






The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog. I’m pretty happy with it. I am inspired to finish my book in 2013—once I awake from zombie mode because of the recent birth of my baby girl! Yes, there’s a lot of sleep deprivation going on around the Joannes household right now, but there are glimpses of deep inspiration as well. I hope to draw on that inspiration to create a book that satisfies your craving for unique missionary stories.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,900 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 5 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.



Chapter 4, Fragile, excerpt from The Memories I Made Up by David Joannes

All too often we forget the stark fragility of life.

* * *

Traffic is stopped up on Xuefu Road. An angry man is sticking his head out of his vehicle, shaking his fist, shouting for the people outside to move. But the crowd in front of his vehicle is only growing larger and sweatier. Three college boys in slacks and pullover sweaters. Two nervous middle aged women. An old lady holding a small child by the hand, the child who is, of course, terrified. The little boy is gazing at the pool of blood on the pavement.

No one offers any help. That is not the rule. Everyone knows that as soon as you get involved in the tragedy of another man in China, you could end up the culprit in the story. And so the crowd of people in front of the angry man’s car keeps shuffling their feet as he yells. They murmur in a semi-circle, wide eyed and useless as the pool of blood seeps into the tiny cracks in the road.

The police have not yet arrived, but when they do they will first fill out their paperwork, snap a few pictures, yell at the crowd to back up, and determine whose fault the accident was. All the while the deplorable whimpering sound of the old man crying will beg to be recognized as someone of worth in a communist system that has stolen the respect from men.

I catch a glimpse of the old man cringing in pain through the gaps in between their legs. I see the same thing as the crowd, but somehow it does not convey the same meaning to them as it does to me. I hear the old man crying in agony, his right hand cradling his bloody head, as does the awkward crowd around him. But the sounds do not seem to invoke in them the same sensations as they do in my heart.

The redness oozes between his fingers. His gray hair is soaked, his legs still tangled in his mangled black bicycle. He looks about fifty-five years old. The back tire of his bicycle is popped, the rim crushed. The car behind him has a long black scrape along the front left wheel well, and the man who owns the vehicle is irate about the scratch.

I scrunch my eyebrows as I take it all in. I am sad and angry and I feel helpless in China today. “Can I really make a difference in this nation, God?” I ask under my breath. In my heart I know He has called me here. I know that He who called me is faithful, and He will complete the things that He has begun. But right now I wonder where is God in the midst of communist China.

The fifty-five year old man is still crying in pain. No one has stooped down to help him yet. His gray hair is stained crimson red. The irate man is still shaking his fist and yelling at the crowd. And there are sirens in the distance.

I shake my head, and begin walking down Xuefu Road, wondering what Jesus would have done had He been in China today. I wondered why I wasn’t the Jesus that the old man needed today.

“Can I really make a difference in this nation, God?”

“Of course you can. But not by keeping your distance from the pain you see all around you.”

* * *

The next day I pick up a copy of the Yunnan Daily. There is a photograph of a fifty-five year old man who was hit by a car on Xuefu Road. His legs are tangled up in his black bicycle. A crowd of people are gathered around his body. His skull is cracked from the impact of his fall. By the time the police arrive, he has already passed away.

The image is silent.

I squint at the black and white photograph and see myself on the far right hand corner, stepping out of the frame. Too often I walk on the far end of the Samaritan man’s road.


lornapoetry by davidjoannes, february, 2001


beneath) her steady strength:
bequeathed from
someplace past the
highsky lies
of flimsy flowers’ elegancy

to hold her hand
across careless streets and
dancedancedance sweet…

her shiningsmile serenading
kings to their knees
luminous twinkling in
her eyes terrifies
starry galaxies’ crinkling majesty

her beautystrength is the terror
of jealous stars

torrential skies pour liquidpebbles
upon defenceless flowerpetals
(the brutal stoning
of delicate beauty)
she is the whisper of
flimsy flowers’ fragilestrength elegancy

“hero!hero!” from the flood calls she
lady: your fragilestrength
arouses in me