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Learn the Names

May 12, 2005

A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
is God in his holy dwelling. (Psalm 68:4)

Shefali Begum was desperate, that's the only explanation for what she planned to do. Desperation. Desperation like only a mother could feel as she considers the prospect of her child starving to death.

Shefali is a young woman, 26, but she had the  5-15misfortune of being abandoned by her husband in Bangladesh, where nearly half of the population lives in poverty. For Shefali, a woman alone in a culture which has no place for a woman alone, poverty doesn't even begin to describe her life in a slum in the city of Dhaka. She is unable even to scrounge together two meals a day for herself and her 2 _- year-old daughter, Meem. Shefali looked for a job, but there was none to be found.

So Shefali Begum decided to do what she could. She decided to sell one of her eyes.

She advertised her eye in a newspaper. She didn't set a price, but hoped, she said, to get enough money from the sale to set up a business as a street vendor or a toy peddler. When asked about her decision, Shefali shrugs and says, “What do I do with both eyes while my daughter will die for want of milk and food?”

Shefali Begum's story has a happy ending, largely because her story made the news wires and people all over the world now know her name. Offers of donations poured into Bangladesh, along with pressure on the government. And so about ten days ago now, Prime Minister of Bangladesh Khaleda Zia contacted Shefali to offer her a package of government assistance that includes a home, a free food voucher, and educational expenses for Meem. She also received a check to deposit in a bank to earn interest; enough, said the Prime Minister's spokesperson, “to support Shefali and her daughter.”

I'm glad that Shefali won't have to sell her eye, though my cynical side makes me suspect that her government responded as it did because of the high visibility of Shefali's predicament. I'm thankful just the same that Shefali and Meem now have a good chance of surviving and even prospering. But their happy ending makes me think of other names that I'll never know, other stories I'll never hear. Stories that will have different endings -- much less happy ones.

Shefali's story makes me think because I confess that I sometimes don't give the poor much thought. There are women on their own, struggling to survive and care for children, right here in my backyard and I don't know the names of many of them. There are children in the custody of the state - or worse - literally just around the block from me, and I haven't met them. There are immigrants trying to build new lives in America right here in my own church, and sometimes I wonder if I've done everything that I could to show my compassion for them.

We comfortable American Christians tend to think of the love of God only in spiritual terms. We tend to think that helping the poor and hungry are secondary concerns, nothing but ways to open doors to the kind of ministry God really cares about - evangelism. Now, I don't want to minimize evangelism, or the opportunities for the gospel that are opened by showing true compassion for the needy. But sometimes we need to be reminded that God really cares about compassion for the needy on its own terms, too.

“A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” - that's what the psalmist called God. He was certainly under no illusions that God cared more about whether or not a sinner got saved than he cared about whether a hungry person got to eat. The prophet Malachi pictured God putting his people on trial: “I will be quick to testify against…those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 3:5)

You see, God knows the names I don't. Women so desperate they'd sell body parts, hungry kids, worn-out immigrants working long hours for fractional wages: God knows their names. He cares about them: not just their souls, but their whole persons. And he takes it very personally when his people can't be bothered to learn some of the names of those folks who are so on his heart and take it upon themselves to be ministers of his grace and love to them.

So spend some time working in a food pantry or a homeless shelter. Volunteer to be a Big Brother or Sister to a disadvantaged child. Befriend an immigrant family and offer to help them find jobs or teach them how to speak English or give them a bag of clothes or a sack of groceries. Buy a sandwich for a panhandler.

Learn the names of some of those folks, and you'll have a harder time forgetting them. Learn their names, hear their stories, and begin to care about them like God does - as his creations, valuable and meaningful and as deserving as any of us of justice and life.

In the end, Shefali's story isn't a reflection of the conditions of Bangladesh. It's a reflection of the fallen world we live in, in which the poor and powerless don't matter and get pushed to the back of the line. They matter to God. They are dear to him, and to ignore them or overlook them is to invite his judgment. We are his people; may our lives reflect a different system of values. May our lives show his love for people like Shefali Begum whom our world reduces to selling parts of themselves to survive.


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