I stood under the starlight, my laundry air drying in the night desert breeze on the roof of my apartment. The foreign call to worship was ringing out loud from towers over the city; I pressed my own forehead into the flat cement rooftop and wept. I had walked around this holy land, rich with culture and perspective, numb for weeks. Leaving my vibrant church home was more difficult than I had expected. Charging into the dark places sounds almost heroic doesn’t it? I did not feel anything like a hero.
I was weakened. I had never been in a place that made my spirit feel so constricted and guarded. I lay back on the concrete to watch the stars. My mind started to relax a little, and I could feel the chaos in my heart begin to still. I noticed the subtle flicker of the tiny bright white lights poking through the darkness. The stars seemed a little brighter now that I was focusing on them.
My mind reeled back to my first time leaving the comforts of home, when the Lord first called me.
A Memory of Georgia Fields
I stood in a field in Gainesville, Georgia getting ready to leave the country for the first time in my life. I was abandoning my middle-class closet of beautiful clothes and plentiful accessories for a life lived out of a 50-pound hand-me-down suitcase. If I’m honest, I was scared. But, I was so confident Jesus was leading me forward that I didn’t want to entertain the fear.
My deepest fear is always questioning, “Am I really doing the right thing? Of all the things that I could be doing, is this right?” In that Georgia field, I looked up at the stars, longing to know if I was really doing the right thing going off to the unknown of rural Africa? I’d been dreaming of it for years, but now the moment was happening. Uncertainty lingered. Orion, the warrior constellation, shone confidently in the blackness above the field, and his presence in the sky reminded me of an even stronger promise which whispered into my heart, “I am with you, even to the end…” Sometimes hearing the words of Jesus is exhilarating.
I got off that plane in Africa and looked up to the sky to see that Orion had followed me there, and I smiled. There he was. And more importantly, I knew Jesus’ promise had also followed me there.
New Tears, New Compassion
I thought through these things, and the dry, cool breeze brought my mind back to the present. The promise had also followed me to that cement rooftop. My mind reeled in the truth. Tears rolled down my cheeks for a new reason.
In that moment, God allowed my heart to experience His love for a people who are either defiant towards Him or helplessly ignorant of Him. I found the love of God to be wondrously endless. I was overwhelmed with pure compassion for those precious people as they slept and dreamed in their dimly lit houses all around me in that desert valley.
Our World’s Challenges
They don’t know Jesus, and this is our world’s greatest challenge.
Growing up in Georgia, I was beyond blessed to live in a land where I’ve heard the Gospel 1,000 times over. I’ve grown up around loving people who have been patient with me while I strengthened my faith, but 40.7% of the world’s population is considered unreached.
Unreached is an extreme word, as it should be. It means that these people may have never heard of Jesus, met a Christian, or held a Bible. They live their lives desperately apart from Christ without even knowing what they are missing.
Years later, I was in Mozambique visiting an orphanage where a couple of women had the overwhelming task of caring for about 50 children. I played with the older children for a while and then went to go explore the other rooms in the orphanage. I found a room of cribs — the babies lying there by themselves. I picked up one who looked to be about four months old. She had little wrists, and she looked at me with longing eyes. I held her for the next two hours, cradling her and praying for her future. I asked how old she was, and I was told that she was about a year and a half old. It was astonishing. I lifted up her little shirt to see her malnourished belly. Babies need physical touch in order to grow and develop, but that kind of love and attention was a luxury too steep for this tiny one.
When it was time to leave, I laid her back in her crib. She shrieked and cried, but I had to walk away. I wept in the van. It occurred to me in that moment that I had never in my life heard tears more justified. It is always the children who absorb the impact of extreme poverty.
Extreme poverty is the second greatest challenge in our world. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. And they die quietly in some of the poorest villages on Earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.
Attempts to Help
In our desperate attempt to intervene, it can be easy to oversimplify. We say, “Someone needs to go give those children food! Or mosquito nets! Or medicine!” as if that will solve their problem. When we step back to think about it, billions of aid dollars have been sent to these places, but the money has barely made a difference. Why is that the case? Poverty is an overwhelming and complicated issue. It would be too easy to overgeneralize the answer, but there is one haunting question that cannot be ignored: What is the real root cause of extreme poverty?
When we dig deep, we find that lack of money is not the root of extreme poverty, but most Americans have a difficult time believing it. Depending on the community’s situation, the root could be all kinds of different combinations of twisted brokenness surfacing in nearly every facet of life — community relationships, stewardship of the environment, personal hopelessness or spiritual brokenness. When money is thrown at deep brokenness of this nature, the pain stops for a moment, but it’s like a cheap Band-Aid on a wound that needs surgical intervention.
The way that Christ-followers are approaching poverty is changing drastically. Brian Fikkert of the book, When Helping Hurts, writes, “Poverty is rooted in broken relationships, so the solution to poverty is rooted in the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection to put all things in right relationship again.” This truth focuses us on building up the church in areas of extreme poverty, and walking alongside them in relationship while we figure out their greatest struggles together.
The fact that people don’t know Jesus and the existence of extreme poverty are both our greatest challenges. That night on the cement roof, tears rolling down my face, brisk night air swirling about me, I realized — they are also our greatest opportunities.