Wednesday, June 3, 2009

It Doesn't Get Much Worse - Or Better - Than This. . . ."

I've got a hunch that I'll remember May 18 as the sixth best day of my life. The day I was married stands immovable at #1. There's a four-way tie for second place that's occupied by the arrivals of four kids named Caitlin, Joshua, Bethany, and Nathaniel. Then, there was the day in Nairobi that we met Ibrahim.

Our last day visiting Compassion projects in Africa took us to the Mathare slum, a small trash-heap/cesspool in which over a million of the world's poorest people are crammed. Pictures can't tell the story because they don't have sound, smell, touch, or taste. People live in Mathare hoping to survive one more day. The "streets" are very narrow and horribly rutted composites of mud, sewage, and trash that require full attention to navigate each and every step. One misstep and you're wallowing in disease-ridden garbage. The plastic bags that cover most everything have been used by residents as urinals. With no bathrooms, they urinate in the bag, then simply throw the bag out the front door and onto the street. Ragged channels filled with raw sewage and waste water run through each street to a narrow river that flows through the center of the slum in what's known as the Mathare Valley. More on that later.

The most exciting part of our visit to Mathare is our opportunity to meet Ibrahim, the 12-year-old Compassion child that we sponsor. Ibrahim grew up in Mathare, is being raised by his mother, and is living with several of his siblings. We were excited and full of anticipation.

As we turn off the main road our two vans begin to navigate a steep downhill run through masses of people and garbage on the narrow streets of Mathare. It is a sight that I don't think I'll ever be able to adequately describe to those who haven't seen it. After a quick left turn, our van slows as we pull up to the metal gate of Compassion's Mathare Child Development Center. I'm sitting in the van holding Ibrahim's Compassion picture in my hand. As soon as we pull up in front, a young boy dressed in his best clothes jumps up from where he's been sitting and excitedly waiting on the far end of the small courtyard in the center of the compound. His face is covered in a smile that shows white teeth and huge dimples. He runs to the gate and opens it with excitement. The folks in our van wonder out loud if this is Ibrahim. We look at the boy and look at the picture and are fairly certain this is him.


Our vans back into the small courtyard and we hop out. The young man shyly looks around the back of the van at us. I'm holding the picture and showing it to him from a distance of several feet. Pointing at the picture and pointing at him, he knows I'm wondering if he's the boy in the picture. I didn't even have to say his name. When he realizes it is, Ibrahim runs to us and embraces us like there's no tomorrow. His smile is permanent. Amazing. It is then that I realize that Compassion sponsorship really means something to these kids. It changes their lives and they are so grateful.


Ibrahim grabs my hand and holds onto it for most of the rest of the morning. We meet his mother and his sister. We discover that as in so many of these stories of poverty, Ibrahim's sister is actually his cousin. His mom is raising her because her sister died in childbirth, leaving this niece orphaned. That's just the way these people are. Again, amazing. We sit together as we sing, worship, and hear about the work of this Child Development Center. Ibrahim worships the Lord with great enthusiasm. At one point, I'm sitting with my arm around Ibrahim. He leans over to me and in English - which he's been taught and speaks very well - he says, "I was so excited to meet you that I couldn't sleep last night." Again, I'm reminded that our sponsorship is simple, easy, and costs us about nothing. Still, it's paying great dividends in the life of this boy and his family. He has hope.

We spend some time walking through the Mathare slum and we visit another Compassion family. This time, it's a mother raising seven children in a home that's about half the size of my living room. We ask them about how Compassion has impacted their lives. To summarize, God has used Compassion to give them life, both physically and spiritually. I ask the Mom's twin sons about their sponsors. I am amazed at what happens next. There's almost nothing in this house. Mom reaches back behind a drape made of newspapers and fabric scraps and pulls a tattered paper folder out from between a stack of thin mattresses. Inside are photos of their sponsors. . . along with various letters and papers they've received. The boys proudly hold the photos. Both of these boys are sponsored by high school girls from the U.S. I wonder if these two students know the impact their sponsorship is having on this family.

After praying with the family we walk back to the Child Development Center. Just like on our walk to the home, scores and scores of little children appear from everywhere repeating the only English phrase they know - "How are you?!?" They eagerly receive our attention and touch.

On our walk back, we cross back over a crude and dilapidated steel bridge over the aforementioned river. I had stopped in awe and disgust on our way to the home just minutes before. The river might be 20 feet wide. It's moving fast. The steep banks are covered - COVERED - in garbage. The water runs thick and brown. All kinds of who knows what floats quickly by. On my first trip over the bridge, I was taken back by the sights and smells. Downstream from the bridge I had seen two pigs running up and down the banks and in and out of the water. On the other side a dog stood on the bank lapping at the water. The sight had made me stop in my tracks and stare. Now, on the way back, the pigs were still there. But on the other side where the dog had a been, a small boy was kneeling in the water and playing with a small plastic boat.


Before leaving Ibrahim and his family at the Child Development Center, we give them several gifts that we've brought with us from home. Lisa gives Nancy (Ibrahim's mom) several towels and other household items. Ibrahim gets a soccer ball, numerous school supplies, candy, a Mueller family picture, some toys, a Frisbee, baseball cards, a couple of Phillies hats, and a Ryan Howard T-Shirt (yes, I was brainwashing him). But nothing prepares me for what comes next. With huge smiles on their faces, Ibrahim and his mom give us gifts - a wrap and a necklace for Lisa, a shirt and bracelet for me. The bracelet barely slides over my hand and wrist, but I work with Ibrahim to make it work. It's one of the best gifts I've ever gotten. The look in the eyes of these people who live on maybe a buck a day is priceless. We have given out of our abundance. They have given out of their poverty. I think of the story Jesus told about the widow and her offering. I see in the face of Ibrahim that God gives great joy to those who have nothing, and that for them, it is better to give than to receive.

As we pull away from Ibrahim and Mathare, I hope that I will be able to come back again. . . soon. But I also know that it's time to leave. Lisa and I have been given much during our trip to Africa. And with leaving comes the responsibility to return home to do something with it. I am convinced that Compassion is the most impressive ministry I have ever seen or been a part of. I am convinced that I must be a good steward of the experience I've been given.

If I may, I want to end my Africa blogging experience with some challenges that flow out of the responsibility that our knowledge and experience brings.

First, I know that many of you are Compassion sponsors already. Believe it or not, as our group was sharing dinner just hours before climbing on board our flight back to the U.S., Rich informed us that just that day, Compassion International had secured sponsorship for their 1 millionth child! Just to clarify, Compassion has sponsored many more than that over the years. But on that day - for the first time ever - 1 million children were in the sponsorship fold at the same time! Now that I've seen Compassion in action, I have resolved to tell all sponsors that their sponsorship changes the lives of the children, their families, and communities. Your $38 a month is very, very significant. God is multiplying those loaves and fishes into a great feast. If you are already a Compassion sponsor, I want to encourage you to write to your child. They absolutely treasure all correspondence, pictures, and even the simplest of gifts. Please take the time to do that.


Second, to those of you who are not already Compassion sponsors. . . can I invite you into the experience? You, your family, your youth group, your Sunday School class. . . you can and must do this. Jesus calls us to have a heart for the poor. This is a tangible way to make that happen. Before logging off of this blog, would you take a few minutes to click on this link to Compassion International to look at the kids who are in need of sponsors, and to perhaps make the decision today to sponsor a child. We have the money to make this happen. I know we do. It's in our pockets.

A few days into our trip, an amazing thing happened. Lois Penner came to breakfast and told me that she had opened her Bible the night before to read a Psalm. She randomly turned to Psalm 113. She told me, "Listen to this!", and then she read verses 7 through 9: "He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes, with the princes of their people. He settles the barren woman in her home as a happy mother of children. Praise the Lord." I laughed. Why? The night before Lisa had said to me, "I need to share with you what I read this morning. I stepped out of my normal Bible reading plan and decided to randomly read a Psalm." You guessed it. Lisa then read the exact same words from Psalm 113. Coincidence. I think not.

Our trip to Africa was planned before all eternity. The fact that you've followed our trip on this blog was planned before all eternity as well. I trust that you understand that your growing heart for the poor and respect for the ministry of Compassion International was planned that long in advance as well.

If I have any regrets, it is only that I wish I had known all of this sooner.

By the way, if you sponsor a Compassion child or seen Compassion's work in action, what do you think? Post a comment.

8 comments:

Chris said...

Walt,

Thank you for writing about your experience and sharing photos with us. I sponsor a child in Africa as well, and just reading about your experiences has helped me realize the significance of my sponsorship. Our family goal is to sponsor a child for each member of our family, which would bring our total sponsorship to 5 children through Compassion.

God Bless! Chris

Chris Paul said...

Hi Walt,

Thanks a ton for sharing this. You had shared a bit with me on facebook chat last week but the details here really bring it home. We sponsor a compassion child in South America and my Daughter writes her and also uses her own money to help sponsor. To hear how much impact it can have first hand is great.

Chris Paul

Anonymous said...

Walt,
Thank you for sharing your experiences! I echo everything you say about the amount of joy, love, and blessings the people are in Africa. Reading your blogs everyday, I wanted to step back on Kenya soil just to hug my friends in Kibera. For a number of years I have wanted to sponsor a Compassion child, but never did. I always worried about being able to pay my own bills. Realizing I have tight times as well, but knowing how much more these people are in need, I took the leap of faith tonight and sponsored a Compassion Child from Kenya. I can't wait to hear how the Lord works in her and her families life as a result of this small amount of help. I hope I will also get to meet her one day! Thank you again for sharing. I would love to get together with you and Lisa sometime, see pictures, hear more stories. We share so much through our experiences in Africa!
God bless,
Karen Siddons

Amy said...

My roommate and I both sponsor Compassion children--- two wonderful kids from India. We are both YoungLife leaders and recent college grads that really don't have a lot of money (or any this month actually) to spare so we decided to give up cable to help pay to sponsor our Compassion children. It has already been such a blessing! In fact, we actually started sponsoring a few weeks ago- before you ever blogged about it but we both follow your blog closely because of the help and insight it gives with youth culture so it was just cool to see yet another connection we all have. Thanks for your love for kids--- both in our country and around the world-- and your willingness to share your life with all of us.
- Amy Kenney

Michelle Thomas Wiegers said...

Dear Walt
I just spent the most moving evening I've had in a very long time reading your and Lisa's experiences in Africa. Your questions at the end of one of your posts were especially challenging. The ones asking why we are born where we are and blessed as we are. It was so challenging thinking of my little ones, Caleb who is 4, Alice who is 3 and Selah who is 5 months, why were they given so much...and to be honest, so much excess that we have that makes me a little sick. We are to be stewards in whatever small and big ways, but what does that really mean? How awesome would it be to start now teaching them, through sponsoring a child? Seems like such a small thing I wonder why we've not done it yet?

So I went to compassion's site through your blog and found a little boy in Uganda named Caleb. He's giving a similar shy looking expression my own Caleb would give for a camera. We now sponsor him and I'm excited to have the kids write him cards and notes and hope that God could use us in this little boy's life. And also hope God will use this in our family's life to give us a heart for the poor and to give my kids a start at thinking of others before themselves. So hard for a 3 and 4 year old, and so hard, all truth told, for this 32 year old mama as well.

So thanks for your entries, they've really impacted me this evening.

Michelle (Thomas) Wiegers

Beth Czerniak said...

I always love reading your blogs. Everything you write is so "from the heart." And you're so right on in reminding us that we all have the seeds of sin inside us.

I can't imagine what life is like for many of these kids. It gets me so frustrated at what our "kids" complain about it. We are so fortunate. I have sponsored Compassion children since I was in college and it was always a joy to write to them. After reading your posts I just cried b/c I want to sponsor more and more. Please God bless me so that I may be a blessing to others! I am looking forward to getting my five year old more involved in writing and drawing pictures to send. Thanks for the reminder!

Philadelphia Mom said...

What a trip! God was certainly with you and inspiring you.

Love the fact you handed out Phillies shirts. As a die hard fan, this brought a smile to my face!

God Bless you.

Student Ministry said...

Walt, thanks.

Our youth group is sponsoring a girl from Honduras. This blog just reinforces our decision and I am going to print out your letters to read to the students so that they can hear about an experience from someone other than the CI website about how awesome this organization is and what they are truly doing.