Just this past week we took our annual trip downtown to hand out some rice for Christmas. It struck me, as we sat there this year watching Scrooge shut down the guys asking for a donation for the poor (you might remember something about “prisons,” and “workhouses,”) that we would soon be doing the same ourselves. I was overwhelmed with the poverty when I lived here before. More appropriately, I was overwhelmed with the type of poverty here. I’ve written before of the understanding here that everyone suffers. Those who suffer most are labeled mahantra or “beggars.” Many of these beggars would be in facilities for the handicapped were they born somewhere else. Here, they roam the streets in make-shift wheelchairs and crutches, sometimes literally holding their bodies together or contorting their limbs just to move along. Some carry extremely malnourished babies in their arms, skin drooping off their own bodies. All of this shocked and disturbed me into action when I lived here before.
By God’s prompting and guidance, I began meeting with these beggars and sharing stories from God’s word with them (along with a midday snack, basically). I did this as opposed to just giving money because I was furthered disturbed by perhaps the greatest suffering these people endure: shunning charity. People give them money or bread just to get them out of their face. Understand, these people have nothing to lose and act like it. They are relentless beggars. Those of you who have been here before know. I too have given out of that same distanced heart before. Yet, it struck me as I sat with these people that they were shunned by everyone, even each other sometimes. They needed friends. They needed relationships not hand-outs.
Again, through God’s leading I began bringing along friends from our church until our church adopted this group of beggars. Now, every Christmas and National Independence Days (the biggest celebrations of the year), our church brings what they have and shares with this group. But perhaps the biggest thing they share is relationship. They know each other now. It’s such a joy to have actual conversations with these people now instead of merely performing our mutually despised exchange.
Still, it is not all smiles and sweet conversations. We got mobbed this time by over a hundred angry beggars. There is still bitterness and in-fighting and pettiness galore. Actually there is a surprising amount of yelling. Families and friends can yell at each other too, right? But there is something else also: not another resentful, blank stare but true recognition of another human personality, requiring dignity, expression, gratitude, and questions about family . . . give and take.
Jesus once told his disciples to feed what was probably no-more than a hangry crowd of 5,000 with nothing more than what they had. It was a “bring what you got” sort of situation. That’s what our church did today. Ours wasn’t much either but we brought what we had and shared it with our begging friends. But first, we shared with them the story of the man called, Jesus, who called the poor and suffering “blessed” (Lk. 6:20). The God who chose to come and suffer as a man, dying in our place, who being rich became poor for our sake, knows what its like. He came to put us back into right relationship with himself and others. And just as the Feeding of the 5,000 reminds us, we have to “bring what we’ve got” in order to make that happen for others (to be in and to have relationships with others). Then, no matter how small “what we’ve got” is Jesus will bless it and share it and in the end we will find ourselves unexpectedly filled up as well.
Especially if all you have is yourself–your time, your attention, and your respectful presence to a human life gone unnoticed and unappreciated–bring that to Jesus and see what he does with that. In fact, that’s what he really wants when it comes down to it– your life. Having nothing but your naked, unspectacular life to offer to Jesus is something our beggar friends are faced with every day and that is a heck of a lot more than you or I remember most days. Maybe that’s why Jesus calls them “blessed.” At least, that is what we have found working with the “blessed ones” here in Madagascar.