One wet afternoon in Nepal we had a visit from an English missionary friend. He sat down in our living room and sighed.
“This morning,” he said, “I was in Nepali church and the offering was taken up. As I passed the bag along, I couldn’t help noticing that the amount I placed within it was 500 times greater than the Nepali man who sat beside me. But even as I noticed the amounts, I knew in my heart that his giving had hurt him so much more than my giving had hurt me.” Our friend looked up at us. “And you see, for all these years, I’ve been wanting to be like the widow, to give God everything I have and now that I’m actually here in Nepal, I find myself looking more and more like the rich young man…”
We sighed with him. It was exactly the same dilemma that we had groaned over for days and months and years. It was the heart- wrenching guilt of facing our own affluence within a community of extreme poverty. And in relative terms it wasn’t even that we were that wealthy or living in ways that were markedly different from the people around us. We certainly hadn’t seen ourselves as wealthy in our home countries. But the mere fact that we had access to a plane ticket immediately put us in a different category. If our children fell sick, we knew that Interserve could evacuate us to the nearest medical facility. But if the children of our neighbours fell sick, they couldn’t even afford to walk to a clinic.
And within that setting, we somehow had to face our own wealth and then make daily decisions over how to use it wisely. And that was hard! Almost everybody around us was in some kind of significant physical need. Every day beggars waited on the other side of the gate and sometimes they came to the door. A woman knocked quietly, saying that a fire had destroyed everything she had. A man handed me a note saying his tongue had been cut off. Three young girls in the bazaar stayed in a single room, washing up, with no opportunity to go to school. The boy next door was so hungry that he ate our left over mango skins.
And every day we tried to make up new rules or a system that would help us deal well with the issue. Always give rice not money, we would say to each other. Stockpile clothes at Nepali church so that the Pastors wife can oversee the distribution. Always carry extra bananas on bus trips, so that we have something to give. Direct people to the hospital so that we can provide free treatment, rather than dealing with them on the streets. But every time we would make up a new rule, the complexities of the situation would undo us. Even at church we would see the effects of dependence on western givers. We desperately wanted to encourage a healthy and independent indigenous church, but the mere fact of our presence altered the dynamic. Simply knowing that we were there, made the likelihood of ‘rice’ Christians that much greater…
And so we would sigh and groan and pray and empathise with our missionary friends. But maybe the very fact that our rules fell so far short of our experience was a good thing in itself. Maybe our groaning led us to a closer walk with Jesus and a greater reliance on his word and the promptings of his Spirit. And maybe good Christian stewardship is less about following a set of rules or a system and more about something we become. It’s a way of living… and a way of thinking and praying and relying. So how should I respond to extreme poverty? The only thing I have to say is… stay very close to Jesus, who left his home in heaven in order that we might live.
Naomi Reed is a former Interserve Partner. She is also a bestselling author and gifted speaker. Her latest book, The Plum Tree in the Desert shares stories of faith and mission from Interserve Partners over the last 25 years. Naomi is also speaking on the Australia-wide Unfolding Grace tour. For more information, see Unfolding Grace.