As members of the human race, what responsibility does a Sacramento soccer mom have to a Sudanese mother of five, trying to find clean water for her children? Does the recent college grad with his newfound “disposable income” owe anything to the third-world farmer, trying to feed his family on $1 a day? For most of us, questions like these remain purely theoretical, proving so complicated to answer that usually we give up… effortlessly slipping right back into the status quo where a daily Starbucks and a new purse every season feels like a birthright.
But does it have to be this way? Can we start a revolution of sorts; a revolution where the burdens of others weigh as heavily on our hearts as they do on the one bearing the burden? Where buying a well so that an African village can have clean water feels more urgent than buying a new car? Where sponsoring a child’s life-saving surgery seems like a better use of $1,500 than buying the latest plasma TV? I don’t believe we can arbitrarily decide to suddenly live this way; it requires a transformation of the heart – a change that can only be shaped and molded by the Creator who carries each of our burdens and feels the weight of them all.
To change hearts, I believe God often puts us in a place where we must face the stranger – the one who has previously remained anonymous, thereby allowing us to live comfortable, unaffected lives because we don’t really encounter true suffering and therefore can live as if it doesn’t exist. Ignorance is bliss, after all, and perhaps to a degree most of us choose to remain ignorant so that we are not held responsible for what we know. But when the shadowy faces of the strangers suddenly become familiar – when you feel the orphan’s breath on your cheek – everything changes. The stranger becomes your neighbor. Apathy fades away, and you find you have no justifiable choice but to embrace his needs as your own and do what you can to help bear his burden.
God wanted me to face Huang Lian. At 16 months old, he weighs 13.5 pounds. He hasn’t grown in 8 months, and during that time he lost weight. He is an orphan with cerebral palsy, and his foster mother says he has trouble eating anything other than the milk we give him through the formula project our Foster Home sponsors in his orphanage. We ask questions, trying to solve the mystery of why he is doing so poorly. We’ve kept him in the formula project 4 months longer than most children, hoping to see the low line on his growth chart start creeping upwards. It hasn’t worked. Today we solve at least part of the mystery. His foster mother tells us that he has diarrhea 3 to 4 times a day, which means all the nourishment he’s given doesn’t help him at all. We now know he isn’t going to get better if we leave him where he is. He is dying before our eyes.
I place him on our measuring board – hoping against hope that this month will be different; that this month he will have gained a centimeter in height. Unlike the other children who fight and squirm in an effort to avoid the uncomfortable measuring board, he doesn’t have the energy for that and instead lies there listlessly with no attempt at resistance. I’ve heard the phrase “skin and bones” used to describe skinny kids many times in my life, but given my background in comfortable, middle class America, I never really comprehended what it meant. But now, as I lift his legs to finish his monthly measurements, the phrase suddenly and painfully makes perfect sense. The skin on his legs folds like an accordion; he is truly skin and bones, and the harsh reality of it makes my eyes sting with tears.
I’m instantly plagued with questions and frustrations – Why have I not paid more attention to him before? Is it too late to save him? What could I have done several months ago, when his growth first started flat-lining? In a world with the wealth and resources we have today, why is this child slowly and painfully starving? The answers don’t come easily, but the urgency remains. This is no longer an obscure child or a mere line on a growth chart; this is a child as close to me as any child of my own. I cannot walk out of the room and get away from him, leaving his issues behind as I close the door. For better or worse, he goes with me now. His face is before me all the time. His burden becomes my burden.
When we arrived back in Beijing, his was the first story we told to the rest of our staff. Within a few days, we had contacted his orphanage and offered to pay the 15 dollars a day that it would cost to hospitalize Huang Lian and feed him intravenously. Fighting for children like Huang Lian is the reason we exist. We are dedicated to finding the weakest and the most forgotten orphans; usually the ones deemed worthless and hopeless by far too many people. By acting on the belief that every life is created for a purpose and instilled with inherent dignity, we ensure that all of the children in our projects receive the chances they need to survive.
To do this work well, we need more and more people to join us. If you are ready to join this revolution, the first step is to allow God to transform your heart; to allow God to turn strangers into neighbors so that you cannot imagine walking away and leaving the hurting person in her distress; to allow Him to break your heart, trusting that He will rebuild it. When the stranger becomes a friend, everything changes – priorities, plans, and purposes. When this happens, you join the revolution where loving your neighbor – even if he is a near-death orphan on the other side of the world – makes more sense and has a stronger pull than indulging the latest whim. It isn’t a change that you can create on your own, but it is a remarkable transformation that God works within you when you open your heart and allow him to reshape it. And though the reworking often hurts and requires sacrifices, the life you are left with is richer and more beautiful than you could ever have imagined.
It is the life you were made for.