Knowing the poor by name

I didn’t preach on Sunday; I shared the services with a remarkable band called Remember Seven, and Katie Wallis preached. I’ve written about Katie before here. And here. Oh, and here too. It’s great to hear a capable preacher (I’m including you in that, kt!!).

The Old Testament reading concerned the Hebrew midwives, and Katie drew inspiration from them and their  refusal to conform (Romans 12) to the edict of Pharaoh. She spoke of knowing the poor by name, as people. It struck me that we know the names of the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah.

How many women don’t we know by name in the scriptures? It seems women didn’t count too much… Yet we do know the midwives’ names. They were and are women of consequence.

Get to know some other people—Angie, Daniel, Grace, yourself— by reading these excerpts from Katie’s journal (thanks, kt!). Oh, and look out for her book, it’s coming!

Angie

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe – 11/11/08 – 16:07

“He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” — Psalm 113.7

I want to write about Angie. I met Angie two weeks ago and I don’t know why I didn’t write about her the second I heard her story. Perhaps the story was too familiar to me. Another abandoned baby…a lucky one who has been saved and now has a home. She has clothes, a bed, a mum, food, brothers and sisters. She has a chance. Her life approached death, but death did not have its way with this baby girl. How many times have I heard this story over the last seven weeks? I couldn’t say…dozens of personal stories, but hundreds more children whose eyes I have looked into without knowing their stories. Hundreds more who have been rescued from death.

Three days ago I spent the night at a lodge called Pumalani and had an amazing time. I ate lots of great food, had plenty of laughs and slept soundly in a warm, comfortable bed. I ate too much and was again struck by how easy it is to forget about babies like Angie. I certainly don’t intend to forget. In fact, I’m trying to make every effort to remember all I see in its full, painful accuracy. However, for nearly 24 hours at Pumalani I could have been anywhere in the world. It didn’t feel like the desperate Zimbabwe I have come to know on a daily basis for these last three weeks.

On our way home from the lodge, we stopped in at Matopos National Park to see some incredible rock formations and wild game. We lied and said we were Zimbabwe residents in order to get cheap entry fees into the park…paid the equivalent of about 10 cents each, as opposed to the US$15 that foreigners normally pay. Someone else actually told the lie…I was busy posing for photographs in front of an incredible rock formation. It is only now, 3 days later, that it occurs to me how wrong that was. Like I said…I forgot quickly to think of others. I could have been anywhere in the world…selfish and self-centred.

We drove through this incredibly beautiful game park. Rock formations like giant jigsaw puzzles stretched towards the sky in red, brown, grey, green and granite black…breathtaking. Then there were the animals. Giraffes, zebras, impala, an eagle and a mum, dad and baby rhino. Just spectacular examples of creation everywhere I looked.

There had been a massive bushfire in the area and we found ourselves driving past large expanses of burnt out bush. At times there was blackness as far as the eye could see, with burnt tree stumps dotting what was otherwise just a flat bed of dry land. Upon closer inspection, however, there were splatterings of growth. a lonely blade of grass, magnificent in its deep green shading as it shot up from beneath the ashes. There was a spectacular flower shooting up, glorious and bright pink against its black canvas…and I thought of Angie.

Angie was not yet three when her mum packed up their flat. All Angie’s belongings were put in a small suitcase, her mother’s belongings in another suitcase, and they set off for a better life. Somewhere along their journey together, Angie’s mum decided it was too hard. Angie was instructed to sit on the side of the road with her suitcase. “Don’t move, someone will be coming to pick us up soon.” Her mother left her there, not yet three years old, sitting on the side of the road with her small suitcase. She hasn’t seen her since.

Police found Angie several hours later still sitting and waiting by the side of the road. She was able to tell them what had happened. She knows and recounts the story of her abandonment with clarity. As Angie sat in my lap when I met her, her new mum told me that she often says that if her mother ever comes back she is going to beat her up for leaving her on the road like that. Her mother had told her that she was going to go and get some food for them…specifically she was going to get chicken, Angie’s favourite. So I imagine this little girl sitting excitedly by the side of the road, bags packed, headed for a better life and about to enjoy her favourite lunch. I wonder how long it took for Angie to realise that she had been abandoned by the one person who had been charged with her care. I wonder when confusion turned to fear. I wonder when fear turned to rage in this little girl. She is not three, yet already carries a burden of pain which is surely far too heavy for her little body to handle.

Angie had chicken pox scars from head to toe when I met her a few months after her abandonment. She was beautifully dressed and as clingy and annoying as most three-year-olds. I was captivated by her before I heard her story…I simply found her to be lovely.

I cried when I heard her story. Why does this happen? Why did it not happen to me? My sister Sandra has just had a baby who I haven’t met yet. Why was Hayley born with two parents who love her fiercely and are committed to caring for her every day? I find I am no closer to being able to answer these questions than I was when I first cried them out…and this frustrates me greatly.

I thought of Angie in the Matopos National Park. She, to me, is like a magnificent piece of green grass. She somehow found herself growing, despite the burnt-out wreckage of life surrounding her. She is a lovely shoot escaping from the ashes. I know that soon she will transform again into a spectacular flower…glorious and bright pink against what used to be the black canvas of her life. After more time, perhaps she will see others escape from the ashes too, like baby Daniel. Daniel was just a few weeks old when I met Angie. He was found abandoned in a ditch, still connected to the placenta. He had afterbirth all over him and had dirt in his eyes, nose, mouth and ears…someone had tried to bury him alive. Angie is older, taller…more able to lead babies like Daniel towards the light. She will shout and celebrate as each brother and sister shoots up…more magnificent green, blades of grass. She will meet others, just like her, who have also escaped from the ashes…like Grace. Grace was abandoned as a baby. She was placed in a plastic bag with some rocks…this baby girl was going to be drowned. But, for unknown reasons, she was instead left in a ditch. Ants got into the bag, and when Grace was found she was covered from head to toe with dirt and infected ant bites. Angie and Grace will meet and celebrate their freedom one day. Then on another day…maybe in heaven, although I don’t know if I can wait so long to see such beauty…the growth will be complete. The burnt-out darkness will be gone forever. No more ash. No more black canvas. Each blade of grass, each flower, each tree…each orphaned and abandoned baby on the face of the earth…will find itself planted in a family. A family so rich, diverse and full of colour that I will happily pay US$15 for the privilege of walking amongst it.

I hope I remember Angie, Daniel and Grace, and the hundreds and thousands of saplings just like them. They tell me something of God’s redeeming nature…that though life may approach death, death will never have its way when God desires to plant a garden.

 

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A Sea of Hands

“Today I met a child who wants to be the president of Zambia…but he can’t afford to go into grade 8.” — 29/9/08, 17:52, Cha Cha Cha Backpackers, Lusaka.

ZOCS (zambian open community schools) is a great organisation. I remember one day visiting about 5 different ZOCS schools. We would turn up at the school and find that they had been rehearsing some kind of poetry recital or singing or dancing for us. Our chairs were set up in the shade while all the kids sat in the dirt in the belting sun for the proceedings. The display was always incredible. I’d sit with my too-large, expensive sunglasses on my face trying to somehow disguise the stream of tears making their way down my cheeks. These kids were just beautiful, clothing us with an honour we had done absolutely nothing to deserve…a bit like God really. We would then get escorted into each class where we spent time talking with the kids about their hopes and dreams. It is exactly what I would expect in an Australian school, aside from the fact that there were normally 70 students crammed in where an Australian school would have 25 kids per class. Also, the Zambian classrooms were mostly concrete slab rooms with no paint on the walls, broken windows everywhere and not a single resource to be seen. In short, the infrastructure is not so much the same, but the kids are. Every child has a dream. They dream to become doctors, nurses, pilots, lawyers, journalists, teachers…the president. They smile as they speak of their future. The sad reality is that it is incredibly unlikely that any of the kids I met that day will ever get a university education and see their childhood dream realised.

We visited with a class at the Chipata school who were about to sit their grade 7 exams, and we asked how many of them couldn’t afford to go into grade 8 if they passed their exams…the entire class put up their hands. Not one student in the class had funds available to continue their education. This was the same at every school we visited that day. Not one child. Education in Zambia is free from grades 1-7. We discovered that grade 8 costs the equivalent of US$60-90, so approximately AUD$100. I began to do some rough calculations in my head of how many dollars I had represented on my person that day. My shoes, my clothes, my watch, my rings, my sunglasses, my handbag, my video camera, my purse, my iPod, my passport, assorted medications and lip balm, and a wad of loose cash. It was with a heavy heart that I discovered I was walking around with close to AUD$3500 worth of ‘stuff’ in my possession. I had enough money invested in that one outfit to send 35 children to grade 8 for a whole year. What do you do in life when you have these horrible realisations about the reality of your life compared to the reality of the lives of millions of children all over the world? It’s strange. That day I felt sick. But we had other places to visit so the sickness just sat in the back of my mind as we continued on and eventually stopped for lunch.

We tended to not eat our lunch in front of our new Zambian friends. Instead we went to the Grand Manda Hill shopping complex…the rich part of Lusaka. my friend Lisa and I get given our lunch allowance to share (about US$10) and we begin perusing our options. Lisa chooses a burger and I settle for chicken and chips…decisions we both soon regret. The ‘fast food’ isn’t quite up to scratch. Lisa takes one bite of her burger and can’t stomach any more. I hold my breath and block my nose and somehow manage to choke down my chicken and chips. Unsatisfied. It makes me wonder how many ZOCS school kids are sitting at this moment also unsatisfied…but perhaps for entirely different reasons. I sat after that lunch with a cream bun and a diet pepsi in front of me desperately trying to erase the tastes and textures I had just endured. It occurred to me that perhaps the bad taste in my mouth and the sickness in my stomach was not as a result of my chicken and chips at all. The cream bun wasn’t helping.

“How many of you need help to pay for school next year?”…a sea of hands go up…I don’t recall anyone with their hand down. I try to imagine myself in a classroom in Australia asking the same question and I don’t seem to be able to visualise a sea of hands going up. So I ask the Australian kids a different question. “How many of you have a mobile phone?”…a sea of hands go up…“How many of you have an iPod?”…a sea of hands… “How many of you have a mum and dad?”…a sea of hands. I take another bite of my cream bun as some Zambian men walk by me. I feel as though they are a little too close to my table so I instinctively stretch my fingers out to hold my camera bag and I instantly wonder who taught me this fear? I feel sick again. The cream bun still isn’t helping.

I remember going to this massive women’s conference one time. 14000 women gathered to learn about God and love and a bunch of other stuff. Conferences are funny things sometimes. I’m quite an emotionally driven person so I generally love them. I love some of the hype, the loud music, the pretty singers, the flashy lights and camera work. I enjoy having someone whip me up into a frenzy without me having to actually do much about it myself. I’m lazy like that. I want someone else to do the work of getting me excited about God…and besides, people keep telling me that these people are ‘gifted’ at that so it’s really ok for me to just sit and absorb all that’s happening without actually having to communicate with anyone. It’s great when there’s 14000 other people around. People seem bolder…more able to release a hallelujah or two without fear of being judged by the other conference goers. I’ve been to a few mega conferences and at the time would have said that I had an amazing experience at each of them. But now I wonder if anything about me actually changed as a result of the mega conferences. Did I get better at loving people? Did I ever get better at thinking of others before I thought of myself? Sadly, I don’t think so. Perhaps this is a much bigger reflection on my laziness than it is on the ‘success’ of such gatherings, because in reality lots of good things did happen on this particular weekend. Thousands of children got sponsored through a great organisation called Compassion. I left feeling quite loved…but also a little sad.

Someone stood up to address the conference at one point. They were very nicely dressed. Come to think of it, everyone around me was very nicely dressed. Hair straighteners seemed to have been the Christmas gift of choice. My unruly, curly mop of hair seemed to be a lonely sight amongst a sea of smooth, straight, long hair. Most people had high heels on. My converse sneakers had a few holes in them (only because they are my favourites, not because I couldn’t afford new ones…I could buy 20 pairs if I wanted…and sadly, there are days when I can’t think of anything I’d like better than new shoes to add to the 40 pairs I already have at home). I was wearing ripped jeans and a t-shirt with no make-up. I suddenly wished I’d made more of an effort because most of these women were quite stunning. I couldn’t see anyone with snot on their face. This disappointed me because most of the time when people have snot on their faces I find it easier to see Jesus in their eyes.

Anyway, a good looking man got up in front of a room full of good looking women…14000 good looking women, I’ll graciously include myself in that! He started saying lots of very clever and inspirational things. I was bunked down ready to receive the warm, fuzzy feelings that seemed to be emanating from the clever and inspirational words of the good looking man. I probably didn’t have a massive amount of motivation which was going to translate into the warm, fuzzy, clever, inspirational words actually causing any sort of visible change in my life, but it was nice to enjoy the feelings at the time. Before I knew it, the good looking man was asking if anyone in the room needed a financial miracle. A sea of hands went up around me. I spent the next 30min or so in the middle of 14000 women crying out to God, asking Him to free them from credit card debt and overcapitalised mortgages. I’m not sure why I cry so much when I relive this moment in time. Is it because all I want to do is scream at them all to stop being so selfish and consider for a moment that God is asking them to quit shopping and quit living in houses that are too expensive for them and quit driving cars that are too expensive for them? Do I cry because I know that at that moment I had a few thousand dollars on my own credit card because of selfish purchases and I wanted to ask God to miraculously clear it for me so I could hang onto the clever, inspirational, warm fuzzy feelings believing that I didn’t need to change anything about my own life? Do I cry because I am frustrated that God actually listens to the prayers of a room-full of shopaholics and still wants to bless them?

I cry because I hope that a room-full of students at the Chipata school in Lusaka, Zambia can be as bold as the 14000 women I stood amongst that day. I pray that they can boldly raise their sea of hands and request their financial miracle from God in heaven, that they can present their request with a heart full of faith. And something inside me can’t help but wonder about the miracle that sits in the heart of God. If I was Him I think maybe I’d like to see the 14000 women experience the miracle which frees them from their addiction to ‘stuff’. Maybe if I was God I’d like to see them freed from that addiction so their credit cards were clear. Then maybe, if I was God, I’d like to open their eyes to the possibility that they may, in fact, be the answer to the miracle being requested by rooms full of grade 7 students in classrooms all over Zambia. According to all the evidence in front of me, I am not God, but I’d like it if that’s what He had in mind. I really would.

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Filed under Church & world, family & friends, reflection, ubuntu

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