Before we left the church parking lot my 15-year-old turned to me and asked, “What’s wrong? I looked at you several times, and you weren’t dancing and throwing your arms up like usual. You were just swaying a bit. And, I couldn’t hear you singing. Is something bothering you?”
This is the kid who remembers the store clerk’s dog’s birthday (not really, but it’s almost that bad). He notices details about people and commits to memory what they share with him. There was no denying it to him. I wasn’t upset, but I couldn’t get lost in worship either. There was a small pebble stuck in my craw.
The guest speaker was a representative from Compassion International, and he shared what it was like growing up in poverty. He told how the organization had changed his life, made him realize he wasn’t human garbage, showed him love, and provided those things he needed to catapult him into a successful life in the United States. He explained that he’d been told he’d always be poor and that those people who should have been supporting him were the major ones who tore him down as a child. He showed slides of worn out shoes, kids digging through garbage, leaky roofs, and open sewer. He very strongly encouraged everyone to sponsor a poor child and change their life. And, they were obviously moved with compassion.
The first song we sang afterward began with, “Everyone needs compassion….”
Please understand, I was filled with compassion. I have always, since childhood, had a deep love and concern for the people of Africa, especially Sudan. But, as I realized that nearly every single family in my church already sponsors a child and they were lining up in droves to add another, I couldn’t help but sting a bit at the lack of compassion we’d been shown in that first year.
All of the compassion, love, and assistance we’ve been shown has come from outside our church except for one instance. Every single time we’ve point-blank presented a need to our church, we’ve been ignored or denied.
These people who will dedicate themselves to sending money and writing letters to a child in a foreign country won’t be bothered to pray with or visit a woman or a child sitting right in front of them.
After the service a woman I really love and admire stated that the poor in this country aren’t really poor. We don’t know what it’s like to go without a meal. (Her son, incidentally, is that one instance of compassion we received from our own church.) I’ve heard that at Bible study, too. My dear, sweet friends with hearts of gold have shared how they would love to sell everything, live simply, and minister in a foreign country because we just don’t have it bad here. The poor in this country aren’t poor like they are in other countries. We don’t know what it’s like to not have a warm bed or to be hungry.
I beg to differ.
I’m not jealous or resentful that they will happily brag and throw hundreds of dollars in the direction of an impoverished child! Those children NEED it!
But, so did mine.
So do other children right here in our own country.
My children may no longer be hungry, eating out of the garbage, and they now have decent shoes, but our housing is still horrible. Yes, we do know what it’s like to have the roof leak on us….to have the stench of sewer in our living area……to have rats crawling all over the place. We are still there on that one. But, our reality, past and present, isn’t recognized or acknowledged by the church.
And, I guess that was the source of that pesky pebble yesterday. The value they joyfully and compassionately place on the children served by the organization is not a value they have ever placed on my children or the children of another single mom in the church. Strangely, my church body’s demonstration of compassion for children they’ll never meet was a reminder that we aren’t deserving of the same compassion. That stung just a bit. It’s the message we’ve had crammed down our throats our entire lives. The mantra of our abusers.
I believe in the work of Compassion International. It’s a fantastic organization. But, I would love the opportunity to stand in front of the church and show slides of long-haired, dirty, poorly dressed American children with teeth rotting out of their heads and bodies covered in bruises. I would love to show slides of open sewer in the front yards of rural homes, hidden away from the site of fellow Americans, where all kinds of horrors take place inside the walls of those broken down homes. I would love to shout, “IT HAPPENS HERE IN AMERICA! THERE ARE WOUNDED, STARVING, DYING CHILDREN NEXT DOOR TO YOU! Who will care for them? Will you?”
The American church, as a whole, loves to preach a conservative message against government subsidies and openly judges those who use them. Yet, when one of their own abides by the maxim–submits nearly to death to her husband and looks to the church rather than the government for assistance–they refer her back to some government program! Do you know how many countless times I’ve heard, “I thought there were government programs for people like you.” When I asked for help with getting wood in, our only source of heat, the man who runs the wood ministry said, “We can’t help you. We believe that people should work for what they need.” I do work! I work very hard! But, I’m not able to fall trees.
At this point, I’m finally able to keep shoes and clothes on the kids. There is food in the refrigerator, and I’m even putting in a garden this year. Things have improved so much since that first year. Our lives are unrecognizable in comparison to when he lived with us and kept us in abject poverty. But, we’re still alone. My sons still need to know how to use tools that I don’t know the names of. My children, my daughter included, beg to learn to fish. But, I don’t bother asking.
My teenager asked the youth pastor, a woodland firefighter, to show him how to run a chainsaw and fall a tree. He acted funny and said to talk to him about it at the church picnic. But, strangely, he didn’t come to the picnic. He never mentioned it again. I know the response I’d get if I asked for one of the men to act as a surrogate uncle or grandfather to my kids. Talk to them about it at an event they wouldn’t show up to? Or, throw me a sticky note?
Again, I do NOT begrudge the love sent oversees! But, in Matthew 23:23 Jesus says, “…….these ought ye to have done and not to leave the other undone.” I’m just asking how they can love so deeply a child on a flat screen and yet look right past the child sitting in front of them?
There’s a stigma surrounding abuse so it often remains hidden, but if you look you can see it. And, poverty is obvious. When we were living in deep, deep poverty and our abuser was still in the home, a pastor once told me, “I know your husband has some hidden sin, but I don’t know what it is. If he didn’t, your children wouldn’t be hungry. And, I’d help you, but I don’t want to get in God’s way of teaching you whatever He’s trying to teach you in this.”
My grandparents knew who was being abused in their neighborhood. Way back in the 50’s when the stigma was even worse, if that’s possible. Way back when it was NOT questioned that women were to OBEY their husbands. My grandparents still knew who was in trouble and needed their help. My own grandfather, a former traveling preacher, ruled his home like a tight ship, my grandmother being required to submit her grocery lists to him for approval. BUT, they could see the “mousey” behavior of two of the neighbor ladies. They noticed the unkempt children sitting quietly in the dirt yards. They heard the yelling. They noticed how grossly thin the women and children were, though the husbands “carried weight on them.” So, my grandpa took them boxes of produce from his fruit trees and garden. My grandma sent meals over. Sometimes they just popped in for a visit “to be neighborly.” And, when the one husband nearly beat his wife to death, she and her children knew which house they could flee to. My grandparents opened their door to the frantic pounding and hid them.
They were just being neighborly, showing compassion to those right next door.
I’d love to stand up in front of the church and encourage my “neighbors” to continue to write those checks out for the starving children overseas. But, I’d beg them…..each time you send off a check or write a letter to a child in a foreign country, make a phone call to a lonely, desperate person in your own church or send off a birthday card to a child from an impoverished, broken, abusive home who probably sat right in front of you in church yesterday. Change a child’s life if you can.