Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

Articles: Compassion

Caring for Someone Beyond My Backyard
by Jan Johnson

Parts of this article were incorporated in Jan’s book, Growing Compassionate Kids
and in Jan’s talk, The Compassionate Lifestyle of Jesus

As I sat down to preview a video my teenagers were to see in youth meeting, I wasn't prepared for what I saw. A youth group on a missions trip to Ecuador had come upon a child, Enrique, who was seriously ill. When the group found out Enrique's mother couldn't afford to take him to the hospital (which cost $10, US currency), the teens donated the money. With further help, Enrique spent a month in the hospital recovering from starvation.

Were starving children so common worldwide that a youth group could happen upon one? I wondered. Rifling through the supplementary materials, I learned that five times as many infants die in Ecuador as in the Untied States because of the limited access to care for pregnant mothers and immunizations for babies.

How can this be? Those were things I complained about as a young mother -- taking horse-pill pregnancy vitamins and waiting in line with a baby and toddler to get immunization shots at the clinic. I saw then that those inconvenient tablets and hectic mornings obtained a heartiness for my children that kids in developing countries sorely need.

I have since wondered how I -- as high-tech, on-line, news-by-satellite as anyone -- could be so naive about how others in the world struggle. As time passed, I began to understand how the "goats" in the Matthew 25 judgment scene could ask Christ, When did we see you hungry, or thirsty . . . and did not help you? (Matt. 25:44). For years, I had seen the sullen faces of people in undeveloped countries on the news, but hadn't recognized them as "the least of these my brethren."

To be unaware of how people beyond my backyard struggle isn't a sinister choice, but a result of letting cultural attitudes define how I view Third World nations. One of the most helpful things in my awareness has been feeling a part of missions efforts through committed prayer. I got this idea while volunteering at the US Center for World Mission. Missionary Stan Yoder told me about how when he was ministering to the Yalunka people in Sierra Leone, his agency waited for a missionary couple to come to serve at a targeted town. In the meantime, a church in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, began praying for that town. When a new tribal chief was elected, he sent word to start a church in this town. A Yalunka pastor went there every week and within three months, twenty-one indicated they wanted to become believers. Before the missionaries could come, the evangelism occurred -- through prayer.

Prayer creates an ongoing sensitivity described in God's Word: "If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?" (1 John 3:17).

Another vehicle that can help us develop "ears that hear" through all the available information (a weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person in seventeenth-century England was likely to come across in a lifetime) is to find it in short, simple formats, especially stories. Global Prayer Digest (published by the US Center for World Mission) offers a daily dose of three paragraphs of information, beginning with a story that engages me and motivates me to pray. I still remember a story from over a year ago about children in Bombay who are captured and sold to traders in Persian Gulf countries and then sold to wealthy sheiks. They're then tied to the bellies of camels so that during camel races, the children's screams make the camels run faster. Most of the children die, although some survive with deformities or brain damage. Operation Moses (a part of Indian National Inland Mission) rescues these kids, breaking into locked Bombay apartments where the children live among rats and cockroaches awaiting their sale. It's an honor to pray for these children and for the rescue workers who endanger their lives to do this work. Most GPD readings are not that heart-wrenching, but these daily narratives pull my thoughts away from wondering if I can afford vertical blinds that truly match my sofa or what improvements would give my 1960s home a 1990s look. Without those distractions, it's easier to make God's purposes my purposes -- bringing good news to the poor and oppressed.

From there, I've begun reading the mission magazines and newsletters I used to set aside. Sure, the war in Rwanda was about struggles for political power, but it also involved a girl named Maroshema who saw her father murdered by militia men. Because of this, she decided to become a soldier and kill when she grew up, but a Christian organization began taking care of her -- providing food, clothing, teaching her about Christ and giving her trauma counseling. Now she has accepted Christ and is healing.

MAKING FACTS MEANINGFUL

Information from other cultures can sound faraway and obscure, so I try to compare it with something from my experience. For example, it's been more than two and a half years since the Northridge earthquake, but some homes in my neighborhood are just now being demolished and rebuilt. Many have not. It gets me to wondering -- if it takes so long to rebuild homes here, how long will it take to restore burned homes and devastated market places in Rwanda where money and construction materials are severely limited?

Comparisons help me realize that I, as a citizen of an industrialized nation with surplus grain and health-care know-how, am one of the "rich in this world," who has a responsibility to "be generous and willing to share" (1 Tim. 6:17,18). I don't make these comparisons to feel guilty, but because I forget that I am rich, globally speaking when I struggle to make house payments.

I may be frustrated by rising utility bills, but in East Africa people die from the parasites in the cow dung used to heat their homes. With a fraction of what I pay in utility bills, I can supply a family there with a solar cooker that can save their lives.

BONDING WITH PEOPLE WHO AREN'T LIKE ME

The more information I have, the more I want to move outside my comfort zone and build relationships with Third-World people living in my country. But this takes courage, especially if you're not naturally outgoing. I was inspired by a friend who is much shyer than I am. As a teacher, she became involved in teaching English as a Second Language classes to Cambodian refugee families. As she told me stories about the refugees' escape and their struggle to get along, I saw her come alive with passion and energy.

So, when I was asked as part of my work to visit a migrant farm worker camp, I took a deep breath and drove to a narrow canyon situated where eight hundred people lived. There I found scrap lumber huts with no power, no plumbing and no running water. I asked questions and found out many worked for minimum wage in the fields and could not afford rent on top of everything else. I met many with great faith, courage and generosity, and like my friend, I came home renewed.

I've yet to do, however, what my friend, Herb, did -- use my vacation to visit struggling people overseas. Herb sponsors several Third World children and with careful planning, he was able to visit one of them in the Dominican Republic on a trip with Compassion International. His sponsored child, Keila, he discovered, lived in a home with cardboard walls, wires hanging from the ceiling and one light bulb in the kitchen. "She didn't even have her own bed," says Herb, "but she shared one with her Sunday school teacher, who lived with the family."

"I kept thinking it would have been more efficient to use the money I spent on the trip to benefit her project," says Herb. "But the experiences I had will impact me for the rest of my life. Too often Scripture verses about God supplying needs roll off my tongue without thinking how great some people's needs are. Now I see how callous that is. I want to put more prayer and thought into my letters to Keila and do as much as I can to meet her needs."

Throughout this journey toward global awareness, God's quiet voice keeps challenging me over and over so my husband and I began alloting a certain amount of money each month beyond our tithe for advancing God's worldwide purpose. Because it would stretch our budget, it took us a year or so to be convinced that we could "live simply so that others could simply live," as I've heard it put. When we did, I found I got all the joy out of it because I came up with ideas and collected the appeal letters. So one month I saved them and deposited them on the dinner table. Now, our entire family decides where each month's money should go.

God is in the business of caring for the world and as we become intentional about being part of the Father's business, it gets exciting. It reminds me of more often about why I'm here on earth and how God so loves me and He so loves the world.

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This article originally appeared in Moody, January/February, 1997.
It has also appeared in Bible Advocate, Lutheran Journal and Pentecostal Testimony.

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