The first time I ever experienced poverty, I was a seventeen-year-old, almost-freshman in college, adventuring through the Amazon River Basin in Brazil for ten days, finalizing my Big Plan for a future life of missionary work.
That trip was mostly about one thing: God was going to show me what I was supposed to do with my life. I had dreams of finally making my life count. I was going to sacrifice. I was going to suffer. I was going to change people’s lives.
We’d traveled on a boat for the entire trip, going from village to village, spending a day or two in each community, leading kids’ Bible clubs, delivering supplies. This particular day, most of my friends were playing soccer with some locals and I went back to the boat to grab my water bottle. It was on my way back to the game when some little girls appeared. They were laughing and playing and I squatted to talk to them.
“Água,” the little girl said.
“Água?” I repeated.
“Água!” she sang. “Água! Água! Água!” And the girls danced around me. Her friends joining in the water song. I smiled and laughed while they sang the song until I realized they were asking for something. They were pointing at my bottle. They wanted a drink. Of course they’d sing to tell me so.
I lifted my bottle to them. “Água?” I sang and smiled.
“Água!!!” Those little girls lived in impoverished conditions, relying on the the Rio Negro, “Black River” (and all the sediments that give it that name) as their only water source. And there I stood with clean, clear water in my hands.
I squirted it in their mouths. One after another they lined up single file. And the line grew. It grew to more children, then mothers, each stepping forward for a taste.
As I stood in front of that line, alone in a field, awkwardly squirting water in the mouths of strangers, I experienced God’s nearness. I knew this was Jesus. Each child, each mother was Jesus and I was being asked to give the smallest thing: Water. Something I already had. Something vital but also ordinary.
I was a typical American tourist-missionary. If I could go back seventeen years, I would gently nudge myself to put down the evangelical tracts and all the guilt that accompanied them and just keep squirting water in mouths all day. I’d whisper: This, here. This is it. This is everything. I’d tell myself to go and sit with the mothers. I’d tell myself to listen, to learn.
In two weeks I’ll be leaving my little family and flying with eight other bloggers to Guatemala. We’ll be traveling with World Vision, a Christian Humanitarian Organization that does most of its work through child sponsorships. In child sponsorships, World Vision connects a donor with a real child who needs education and emotional and spiritual support. That support provides both for the child and that child’s community as well.
I love World Vision for a lot of reasons. But the main reason is because I believe that if we want to love the way Jesus does, we do it through relationships. When you sponsor a child, you begin a relationship with a real person. And you have the chance to be part of that child’s life through letters and pictures and updates.
I believe in faces and friendships. I believe in individuals caring about individuals. I believe that Jesus modeled friendship and connectedness. I believe that when we look in one another’s eyes, we recognize that we’re all needy, we all need love. We all need one another. We all need God.
I’m going on this trip because children are waiting for sponsors in Guatemala. I’m going on this trip because I want my boys to know that every child, every life, is beautiful and important.
For several years, my family has sponsored a little girl in Uganda named Violah. We write her letters. August draws her pictures. Her little face is on our refrigerator. For my oldest son, Violah is a part of our lives. When we read anything about Africa or notice the shape of the continent somewhere. When we think about cheetahs, we talk about our friend Violah. Last week, he and my husband had a conversation about Africa. At some point, Chris said, “Well, I don’t really know anyone in Africa.”
August laughed as if Chris were crazy. “Of course you do, Dad! You know Violah!”
Of course we do. When we build relationships, we live like Jesus.
I want to learn to live like Jesus. I’m no longer the teenage girl begging God to make her life the Most Important. (Okay. Sometimes I am.) But I hope I’m learning that the most important thing I can do is see, really see, the faces in front of me.
The most important thing I can do is offer the small thing in my hands: water, words.
I’m going to Guatemala with World Vision because there are children whose stories need to be known to us. There are children who need education and nutrition. There are mothers who long for their babies to have a future. There are children who could have those gifts if we choose to come alongside them and offer what we have. I’m going to Guatemala because I can do this small thing: I can tell a story.
And I want to tell that story to you. So you know. So you see their faces. So together, we can do the biggest thing: Build a relationship. Love a child. Speak words that give life.
That song those little girls sang in the village in the Amazon is the song we all sing. It’s the song of Jesus.
Thirsty, thirsty, we sing. And Jesus sings back, Water, water.
Let’s line up and drink.
Will you consider sponsoring a child in Guatemala? You don’t have to wait till I leave for my trip. You can do it right here. Today.