Irony is not lost on me. My husband Gene and I flew to Ethiopia to be part of a ministry team that delivered badly needed clothing and supplies to refugees, outcasts, and the infirmed. We arrived on a modern jet that had carried us across the ocean from America. When we disembarked the ultra-modern high-speed airplane and entered the towns, it was as though we had stepped back in time. We were surrounded by pushcarts, beggars, donkeys, women walking bent over with huge loads on their backs, dirt roads, dogs, rundown shacks, and children dressed in rags. It seemed more like an alternate universe, a fantasy, a setting for an ancient fable, a scene from an Old Testament story.
But, no, it was real, and it was now. I felt almost embarrassed as I handed a few new pieces of clothing to the children, and they responded in worship-like praise of me, as though I had been distributing pieces of gold. To them, with only one shirt on their backs, maybe a sweatshirt or a pair of jeans was actually more valuable than a chunk of shiny metal.
We walked on a ways, and I caught sight of a rundown village school. Outside, the skinny, malnourished youngsters stood quietly in a line. They awaited their daily lunch of one small bowl of soup and a piece of bread. Unlike American children with their fancy lunchboxes filled with sandwiches, cookies, bananas, and juice bottles, these Ethiopian children had no thoughts of swapping goodies with a friend. They certainly would not have complained about having discovered that their peanut butter and jelly sandwich had the wrong kind of jelly on it. They had never experienced abundance, and probably never would.
I approached these children with a smile, not knowing if they would be receptive to me or not. To my delightful surprise, they grinned back at me, and some even gave me a welcome hug. They didn't care where I had come from or what color my skin was. They were just grateful to find someone who wanted to be with them...pay attention to them...possibly even help them.
YET SO MUCH.
I spent time doing what seemed like very simple activities. I showed them how to blow bubbles, and it made them laugh. We spent time using markers to write on a white board. We organized a few relay races. I cheered for them as they used an old tin can to play a make-shift game of soccer.
These children knew that their only hope for a brighter future than what their parents were now enduring was be to get some kind of education. So, they loved their school. They respected their teachers. They showed appreciation for the meager lunch they were given each day. Education was the only "hope ticket" they had for escaping the misery of life in rural Ethiopia.
Later, walking through the villages, I witnessed what the children witnessed each day. Women, who were old before their time, were squatted on a concrete slab energetically weaving brightly colored baskets they hoped to sell to tourists or to local vendors. Their fingers were bony with broken fingernails, their backs were stooped, they had few teeth, their hair was dirty and uncut, yet they worked frantically, hoping to create enough baskets to eke out something to barter with for a day's worth of food.
In the streets the younger girls and women were walking in tandem, carrying opposite ends of crudely fashioned stretchers filled with rocks they were hauling to a construction site. Although they were sweating and their palms were calloused and bloody, these girls were ever so grateful to have found work. Work of any kind meant another day of survival.
Inside the dilapidated homes, women stirred pots of beans over antiquated wood burning stoves, having no idea that natural gas or electrical outlets could make their work extremely faster and easier. Time and progress and money and development and momentum had all completely bypassed this village, yea, this entire nation. These people were not living; they were surviving. They weren't setting goals, they were existing one moment to the next. They weren't joyful, they were resolved to a fate of tedium, poverty, abuse, and invisibility.
As I mentally photographed my surroundings, I found little comfort in what I had accomplished this day. Yes, yes, I was aware that Christ had said that even a cup of cold water given in his name was a worthy act of mercy. Yet, I found myself wishing for his powers to feed 5,000 with a couple of loaves and fish. But, even then, what about the next day...and all the others thereafter?
Nope, I realized I couldn't feed these folks the bread of nutrition, but maybe I actually could share the bread of life. Maybe a few new clothes...a day filled with games...some help learning to write letters and numbers...some warm hugs and smiles...uh-huh, maybe a day of "giving" had shown them the love of Jesus. What these people needed more than anything was a reason for hope. It was right that we had come. Saying that a situation is "hopeless," too overwhelming upon which to have any impact, would have been rational and logical, but it also would have been wrong.
There is no such thing as insignificant progress. Jesus didn't restore the sight of every blind person in the world. He didn't make all lame people walk. He didn't cleanse every leper, raise every dead child, provide wine for every wedding, nor feed every crowd. Yet, he was able to say, "Father, I have completed the work you gave me to do." (John 17:4).
I remember taking comfort in that. I might not have been able to fix all the ailments in Ethiopia, but I was able to do the work God called me to do that very day. And I can now share the message with others, who, likewise, can invest a day of service. That's all He asks of us. If we are willing instruments, He will provide the opportunity of service.
Go ahead. Try it. It starts by investing a smile.
Marylou Habecker has written articles for The Waynedale News, Christianity Today, The Aboite Independent, Seg-Way News, the American Bible Society, and WBCL radio. She holds a BA in education from Taylor University and an MA in education from Ball State University. She and her husband Gene have three grown children and six grandchildren.