Poverty walked on to our porch this afternoon in the person of a rail-thin man wearing old clothes, rumpled and torn, but clean. He came to tell us his 8-year-old daughter died a few hours ago.
This daughter, his only child, had been in the university hospital for nearly a month. The three bottles of serum that dripped into the girl’s veins each day cost the man every cent he had. When his money was gone, his church helped him pay for treatment.
Now, the man needs to figure out what to do with his daughter’s body. He doesn’t have any more money. He negotiated with a taxi driver to drive him and his precious, cloth-covered cargo to another town where he has family. There, the burial can take place without any ceremony. But, he needs 10 dollars for the taxi. His pastor can’t help him anymore. Could we help him out?
There it is in front of us. We can’t close our eyes or will it away. Children die. Too often.
Most of the time it wouldn’t have to happen – if the children had clean water, good nutrition, a mosquito net to sleep under, decent primary health care. These are not complicated or expensive medical technologies, just the minimum needed to ensure survival in Cotonou, Benin.
Our common interest
Tony Blair, Prime Minister of England, commissioned a study on Africa that reports:
“There is a tsunami every month in Africa. But its deadly tide of disease and hunger steals silently and secretly across the continent. It is not dramatic and it rarely makes the television news. Its victims die quietly, out of sight, hidden in their pitiful homes. But they perish in the same numbers.”
According to the Commission on Africa’s report, some four million children under the age of five die in Africa each year, two-thirds of them from illnesses that cost very little to treat. Yet hunger is a key factor in more deaths than all the continent’s infectious diseases put together. Meanwhile, rich nations in our world spend almost 1 billion dollars a day subsidizing the production of unwanted food.
The naked truth
These statistics are too large for our minds to grasp. Yet, it comes down to this scene – a man crying and trying to figure out how he’s going to hold himself together enough to take his child and bury her.
My children ask me why he is crying. How can I explain to them what I barely understand myself? That in this world there are people who are privileged and others who are not. That where you are born determines in large part your chance of survival. That most people live blissfully ignorant of this reality.
But today I cannot ignore this truth. I looked into the face of poverty and saw a human face looking back at me.
Blair’s Africa report speaks of hope, African resiliency and a pervasive interdependence. Rich nations have a chance to play a role in changing the tide of death when a very small investment makes a big difference.
A business loan of 50 dollars enables an African woman to generate income to feed her children better and send them to school. Simple lessons on basic hygiene or teaching about how to treat diarrhea with rehydration fluids (a mixture of water, salt and sugar) can save lives. Garbage collection and proper storage of dangerous waste makes the community a safer environment in which to live. Monthly baby weigh-ins accompanied by instruction on the importance of breastfeeding can increase a child’s chance of survival. These are just some of the areas where Mennonite Mission Network representatives in Benin have invested personnel and funds over the past two decades.
Hope also springs from our Christian faith. In Benin, physical health and spiritual health cannot be separated. Illness is a spiritual issue. A strong Christian faith is important in people’s ability to accept change, a necessary component in adopting a healthier lifestyle.
Christians dare to defy traditions that make a common source of much-needed protein a dietary taboo. Belief in the power of Jesus enables people to look beyond curses to other possible causes of disease and opens the possibility of seeking help in medical clinics.
Gratitude: “And be thankful!” Colossians 3:15b
If this discussion about poverty makes you feel guilty or uncomfortable, I‘d like to share some thoughts written by a mission intern, Janessa Otto, on her blog:
“I also miss a lot of the way I got to live in Canada, so unbelievably privileged, but it's strange. Maybe I will get to the point of feeling guilt. but right now it's more just gratitude. We live blessed lives and should not forget it.”
Rather than feeling guilty, we should feel gratitude. We don’t deserve to be among the most privileged people in the world; we didn’t earn that right by our own efforts (much as we like to think we did!). There are too many factors beyond our control to take credit for our privileges.
When we are grateful to God for what we have, we acknowledge the true source of our well-being. Perhaps our gratitude will make us more humble and more willing to share? It will certainly place us in a better position with our creator.
God’s provision is like a bunch of bananas
We have a banana tree in our garden that we didn’t plant, nor do we tend it much. Nevertheless, every once in a while it provides us with a big bunch of delicious bananas that all ripen at the same moment. We either have to share with others or watch them rot before we can eat them all. I tell my children God provides us with an abundance of delicious fruit to eat even though we don’t furnish any effort. God’s loving provision is often like that.
Think about where you find God’s loving provision in your life. It could be a fruit tree that faithfully bears fruit year after year. Or, it could be something less tangible: an abundance of encouraging words; an abundance of friends; an abundance of hope; an abundance of prayers; an abundance of technical expertise; an abundance of time; an abundance of work.
If we recognize God’s blessings, we may be less dissatisfied with what we have and, instead, be filled with gratitude and joy. If we trust in God’s loving provision, we will be freed from anxiety about tomorrow. We will find peace.
Abundant living like a quilt
A nine-year-old girl requested gifts of money for La Casa Grande, an orphanage in Benin, on her last birthday. As the day of her birthday approached, she began to waver. She even cried a little at the thought of not opening any gifts.
This child has understood abundant living. She knows she has an abundance of blessings in her life and an abundance of people who will give her gifts. So, she has chosen to share that abundance with others.
Abundance doesn’t mean we have more than other people, but it does mean we have more than we need. When we have an abundance of something in our lives, we should know that it comes from God.
Quilts are an example of abundance. In an earlier time, women sewed all the clothes for their household. The many scraps of material that were left over had no value; they were too small to be made into anything. Yet, when these “useless” scraps were sewn together, something beautiful and serviceable was created.
For those places where your cup runs over, praise God from whom all blessings flow! Now, how is God calling you to let those blessings flow out from you to the world?
We are blessed so that we might be a source of blessing. Let it be so!
Nancy Frey and Bruce Yoder, her husband, represent Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Church Canada Witness in Cotonou, Benin. Frey is a member of St. Jacobs (Ontario) Mennonite Church, and attended Assembly Mennonite Church, Goshen, Ind.