Eva-le was born in the back of a Land Cruiser in the middle of the night just over three years ago. Her mother, Aisha, had begun walking in the dark towards the clinic on the other side of the camp as soon as her labor pains started. This was her fifth baby and the last kid was born in a patch of grass on the side of the road so she knew there wasn’t a lot of time to spare.
In a stroke of luck, a passing Land Cruiser stopped to help her the last couple of kilometers, hustling her and a relative into the back of the car. But somewhere between the airstrip and the market they hit a deep pothole. The relative loves to tell the story of the loud whap she heard on the floorboards of the car as they lurched to the side. She couldn’t figure out what it was until, judging from Aisha’s reaction, she fumbled around the dark interior of the car and found the tiny, wet and miraculously unhurt baby girl lying on the dirty floor.
That was Eva-le’s first night in the world.
Aisha and I have been friends from my very first months in North Africa. She started out as someone I paid to help me hand-wash clothes but eventually became my language tutor. I taught her how to read. She taught me Arabic. We have collectively had six kids in the years since we first met. And this last daughter of hers was named after me. “Le” is a diminutive in her language – so Eva-le she is. Little Eva.
In this part of the world names are a big deal. They aren’t chosen based just on what is fashionable or sounds nice. Names have power. Names do something. Sometimes they tie people into a collective identity or memory. They record events, forever linking someone to a specific time in their people’s history – a flood, a war, the death or visit of a prominent person. Calling that person’s name out loud obligates you to remember something important.
Sometimes names give a blessing in and of themselves, as though the very sound holds something significant. For instance, names of older relatives passed on to babies are seen to imbue the very spirit of that person into the new life. You are not just named after someone. You somehow become a part of that someone as well.
Today is the first time I have seen Eva-le in well over a year. I have been looking for her. Her family has moved houses since I was last here and I have spent a couple hours threading my way through the maze of paths that wind through thousands of tents and huts and that seem to realign themselves with every rainy season. But I have found them and we are sitting together in their simple home. Aisha is squatting on the dirt floor freshly sprinkled with water; she is smashing tomatoes, chives, peanut butter, torn bread and salt together with her hands for a light meal we will share. Eva-le is leaning against my knees quietly and casually, even though she really doesn’t know me that well. One sticky set of fingers is cupping my wrist, the other politely held open for some more sugar-coated peanuts. She takes a handful from the bag that I have brought with me and then darts out to share them with her friends.
It never fails to startle me when I look at this tiny little girl, wearing a filthy dress that used to belong to my daughters, and reflect on the fact that we share a name. Two women, one quite a bit further into womanhood than the other, with the very same name and yet wildly different lives.
There is the Eva who has the absurd luxury of skimping on meals based on how her clothes fit, who doesn’t take a multi-vitamin because swallowing a pill feels like a nuisance. And there is the Eva who is perpetually a little hungry and who will most likely worry someday about making enough milk to nurse her babies. There is the Eva who feels pretty pleased about having paid off graduate school loans, and the Eva who will be lucky to have completed first grade by the time she gets married at 17. There is the Eva who literally has Bibles in a half a dozen versions lying rather too-casually around the house. And the Eva who will be fortunate if she can read whatever parts of the Bible are translated into her language by the time she grows up.
In God’s mind-bogglingly upside-down Kingdom, with all chronology and etymology aside, I can’t help but believe in my deepest gut that it is somehow I, a 34-year-old American woman, who has been named after this scrappy three-year-old who has never ventured beyond the borders of her refugee camp.
In Luke 16:9 Jesus says something that either wildly comforts me or makes my blood run cold, depending on the kind of month it has been. After telling one of his parables he cuts to the chase. “Here’s the lesson:” he says, as though it’s really important that there’s not a lot of wiggle room in interpreting the story. “Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your earthly possessions are gone, they will welcome you into an eternal home.”
They will welcome you.
A lot of people think that those of us who have chosen fairly radical lives for Jesus are doing it because we want to change the world. Because we want to make a difference somewhere. We are sacrificing for greater good. And in whatever ways that is true, it is laughably miniscule compared to the ways that we are being changed. The ways that we are made different. The ways that we become the recipient of far greater good.
Though I never realized it nine years ago when I set out on this adventure, I am here to save myself. I need Eva-le, so much more than her family might ever think she needs me. Because in the economy of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God belongs to her. And I desperately want to be welcomed into it.
Our shared name forever links me to someone important. It forever obligates me to remember something I can’t afford to forget: that the last come first, that the poor, grief-struck, hungry and thirsty are the blessed ones. Our shared name ties me into a collective identity, an awareness of who I am and what story I am a part of.
Whatever I have in this life I will someday lose. There is no way around that. So it seems pretty foolish not to use what I have to build relationships with people like Eva-le. Because something tells me that someday she’s going to be one of those at the gate welcoming people in.
And on that day, you better believe I am going to be staking my claim as her namesake.