One of my favorite Bible stories is the Good Samaritan [Luke 10:25-37], which teaches (in the words of missionary Heidi Baker) "stopping for the one, loving the one in front of you." Let’s not be so religious or caught up in our own ideas of "goodness" that we don’t see the needs of others around us and offer real help to hurting people. And hurting people may be wearing nice clothes, or have plenty of money – we need to "see" the person in front of us who needs a smile, a hug, or an encouraging word.
However, most North Americans have a very limited understanding of how the rest of the world really lives. The majority of the world’s population does not automatically expect water (certainly not hot or potable water) to be available from an indoor tap, or that electricity will flow when a switch is turned on. Approximately 134 million children worldwide have no access to school of any kind. The rural poor in Mozambique have never seen money. In the "city" of Pemba, the one "grocery store" carries only one type of coffee, rice, beans, etc. Think of the variety of food & entertainment we have available to us in the U.S. practically 24/7! My point is not that we shouldn’t enjoy what we have – the more I travel to poor nations, the more I appreciate a hot shower, a cappuccino, and toilets that flush! My hope is that we would see the world in more balanced perspective, how easy it is to make a real difference in the lives of others, and experience the increased blessings of generosity and gratitude in our own lives as well.
My first overseas mission trip was to Guatemala in Oct 2004. Our church has had a relationship with Mi Refugio, a mission school reaching out to poor children who live near the Guatemala City dump for over 20 years, also providing medical and dental clinics, clothing distribution, and other support for residents of poor Mayan villages surrounding the church property. The first time I went, I had a flare-up of rheumatoid arthritis (diagnosed in 2001) and could barely walk – I was with a small team doing construction on the school buildings, and they let me paint from a chair. I painted a whole building from the ground up to about 5 feet, while another team member did the ladder work on the tops of the walls. On my 2nd trip in 2007, I was assigned as a "translator" for the medical team – I thought it must be a mistake, since my Spanish language skills were pretty minimal at the time, but we only had one native Spanish-speaker for a team of 5 nurses who diagnosed and treated about 1000 poverty-stricken patients that week at makeshift clinics in mountain villages and one day near the city dump. It seemed miraculous to me how my little bit of skill, offered in good faith, was multiplied during that week. On my 3rd trip in 2009, it was almost overwhelming to see hundreds of villagers lined up when we arrived at the schools where we set up clinics in hot, dusty classrooms. A videographer who was documenting the mission work told us he was moved to tears by the way the team loved all those people in such primitive surroundings all day long, treating each patient as precious, unique and deserving of attentive kindness.
In Aug-Sept 2008, I traveled to Mozambique for 12 days with a team assembled by Global Celebrations, a Christian organization that brings support, encouragement and practical help to mission bases in some of the poorest places on earth. The Africa trip was daunting because it was the farthest I’d ever traveled – literally "the other side of the world," and the least like my own culture ; since that trip, I’ve pretty much felt I could go "anywhere." Iris Ministries has been enormously successful in Mozambique, where they have raised up some of the best schools in the nation and planted thousands of village churches. Like many African nations, Mozambique has been ravaged by war, poverty & AIDS, so each pastor cares for 8 to 10 orphans in his own home (it’s taught as "normal" for pastors in Iris Ministries’ Bible schools). Two things I remember most (other than the beautiful faces of the children) are the shortage of water, and an unusual experience in a "hostile" village. On the Pemba base, the water was shut off most of the time due to unpredictable government rationing – whenever it came on, we would fill buckets as fast as we could for "showers" and manually flushing 4 toilets we shared among 40 people in the visitors’ compound. We spent one night in tents under the stars in the "bush bush" where villagers walked 20 minutes each way for water of questionable quality – our team donated money so that Iris could drill a well in that village the month after we left. (Iris’ drilling equipment, rare in northern Mozambique, has opened a lot of doors for them to provide other help to the poor: food, schools, churches, orphan care, etc.) The other experience I will probably never forget was escaping safely after a village outreach on church property met with hostility from 100 angry local men with sticks and rocks in their hands. Our team was on an open flatbed truck, protected mainly by prayers. After filing a report so local police could restore order, Heidi prayed with her staff who’d been struck with sticks to forgive their attackers (their message is Love, so they refuse to harbor bitterness). In the U.S., we think "persecution" is having someone talk behind our backs or treat us rudely. Mozambique is beautiful and heart-rending, and I hope to return in 2012.
I traveled with another Global Celebrations team in June 2009, this time to gypsy neighborhoods in Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey. As we criss-crossed Bulgaria by bus to visit some of the poorest slums I’ve ever seen, the thing that touched me most was the power of JOY to lift spirits and encourage people of all ages and cultures - including ourselves! Gypsies are generally outcasts who have very little in terms of material possessions or what we think of as stability, yet their hearts were as open as little children to the love and joy we shared along with food, clothing, toothbrushes, music, dancing and prayers. As hot and dirty and tired as we were at times, what i remember most about that trip is how much fun it was.
In January 2009 & 2010 (& 2011), I’ve been privileged to spend a week at House of Hope Nicaragua, a Christian vocational rehabilitation center for women and children escaping prostitution. Nicaragua is the poorest Latin American country, 2nd only to Haiti in our hemisphere. I was told by the director of House of Hope that there are 11 child brothels "that we know of" in the Managua area. The poor are especially vulnerable to sex traders, and several of the women I’ve met were sold into prostitution by their own families when they were as young as 6 years old. Of approximately 40 full-time residents at House of Hope (which also hosts a day program on Tuesdays for over 300 women who come to make greeting cards and jewelry), the dominant age group are young teen girls 10 to 16 years of age. House of Hope provides uniforms, fees & supplies so these girls and children of women in the program (kids who might otherwise end up at brothels) can attend school. I teach Bible studies focused on emotional healing and faith for recovery/a new way of life to these women, and they open their hearts to me in a way that is both humbling and deeply rewarding. Last year, a friend and I were able to bring Christmas gifts for each of the residents, as well as extra suitcases with clothing and school supplies. I find I am as happy in a small, hot, buggy room at House of Hope as at any 5-star hotel I’ve ever enjoyed.
I hope that my story helps even one person to believe that anyone can make a difference, and you can do more than you think you can. Start by giving where you are. Go through your closets and find the clothes you don’t wear, household items you never use, and give them to a local charity that benefits the homeless in your community. Start by showing love to the person who is right in front of you. As you open your eyes to the needs around you, "in front of you" may be bigger than you think. And it’s a wonderful way to "see the world" - a friend recently joked, "Why can’t you just go to Disney World like the rest of us?" I told her I’ve been: "Fun place," I laughed. "Does it surprise you that my favorite part is at Epcot, where they have all the different countries around the lake?" :)
http://www.mirefugio.org/ for Mi Refugio in Guatemala
http://www.irismin.org/ Iris Ministries work in Mozambique, Africa
http://www.riverlution.net/ Global Celebrations (Africa & gypsy trip "scrapbooks")
http://www.houseofhopenicaragua.com/ (help for ex-prostitutes & their children in Nicaragua)
May our eyes be open to see as God sees, and to love ourselves & others with His Love.