Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Village

My Village 1

I'm an American. Life in America is good, no matter what anyone says. I've got plenty, more than I need. Even when I was barely getting by - as a new college graduate with no health insurance and a pile of credit card debt - I still had so much. I had a car. I had a job. I had heat and electricity and fresh water and money for groceries. Even if all that had been taken away, I know I'd still have had opportunities - food stamps, welfare, unemployment. And even if all that was gone I'd still have my church family, who would have moved mountains for me. They are my "village"; they are my safe landing place.

I understand that I may be speaking out of turn, here. I don't really have any firsthand knowledge about being truly poor; I've never lived in a shelter, I've never had to choose between paying the utility bill and paying for medicine, I've never had to rely on public transportation.

Still, I know that life in America can't even be compared to life in Kenya, for example. What we consider necessities would be luxuries there. What we consider unsafe living conditions, they consider a normal way of life. Until a few years ago, the sum total of my knowledge about life in Africa came from primary school Social Studies books and from WorldVision infomercials on Sunday afternoons. Then, in 2005, Pastor Moses Okoyo visited our congregation in Illinois. He was a student at the seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, studying to be a pastor in our church body. He was in his 3rd year of study. It was also his 3rd year away from his wife, Monica, and their 5 children who live in Migori, Kenya. When he finished his 4th year of study and got ordained, he would be returning to Kenya to build a church and start a congregation there. He would also be assisting his wife, who runs a school in their village. The school, Neema House of Mercy, serves about 50 children, half of which are orphans and live on-site.

Pastor Moses stayed at our house for the weekend. I riddled him with questions: what is the food like there (plain - breakfast is a paste made of flour and water). Do you have running water? (no - you have to hike a mile to the well to get it) Do you have electricity? (There is electricity in some villages but no, we don't have any.) What do your kids play with? (they like to kick a soccer ball. We have one for the village that everyone shares.) Have you ever seen a McDonalds before coming to America? (Yes, they have them in Nairobi) - I know, I ask the REAL important questions, right?

My heart ached for them. They were so thankful for what they had. They didn't wish for an iPod or a Coach purse or a La-Z-boy recliner. The things they really wanted: a building in which to worship. They had plans to build a church for the village and a school building for Neema House of Mercy (currently they were conducting classes outside, while students sat on the ground.) The total cost for their building plans: $5000.

How is that possible? To build a safe haven for dozens of children and a home for people who have a heart to worship God, all for a small fraction of what it would cost here in America? Yet, that's all that they wanted.

So, that Christmas, when I got money as a gift from relatives, I decided to send them $100. It didn't seem like much but I wanted to send something. The plans for the church hadn't gotten off the ground since Pastor Moses hadn't graduated seminary yet, so they bought supplies for the school children. I'd like to show you what $100 was able to buy:

They purchased school uniforms for 36 students. When I got word about this, I broke down crying. I cried from happiness, realizing what it must mean to a child to have a uniform for school, the pride to have new clothes and a symbol of their unity with other children in their village. I also cried out of shame for my desire for new things, never being satisfied with what I already have. These children touched my heart.

The next year I sent more money. I also convinced our church to send money to support the building effort. I was the Vacation Bible School director and we collected money and supplies to send to Neema school. We collected pencils, toothbrushes, washcloths, and writing tablets. We also sent them some toys, like frisbees, dolls, and inflatable balls.

Then I got pregnant. Sally came along and suddenly my attention was drawn inward. I kept meaning to send more money, but I got swept up in my other "plans". Time went by and I got pregnant again, with Violet. Life got busier and has yet to slow down.

I never forgot about Pastor Moses and his family and their village. As a matter of fact, I think of them every time I say our family table prayer before meals:
"Come Lord Jesus, be our guest. And let these gifts to us be blessed."

That's the common Lutheran table prayer. But our family adds on an extra line, which I learned somewhere along the way:
"And let there be a goodly share, on every table everywhere."

Every time I say it I wonder, "Do they have enough to eat? Are they able to eat together as a family? Are they healthy?"

My own life gets in the way of me being more generous. Maybe I can make the excuse that I need to put my own family's needs first. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. But it does make me think about what we really need. What *I* really need.

I've sent Pastor Moses and Monica an email to ask them if I can send them more money this year, along with a profuse apology for being absent for so long. (They travel to Nairobi a few times a month to buy supplies, retrieve mail, and use a public computer). I have yet to hear back from them, but I hope I do very soon.

Their village isn't my village. Selfishly, I don't want their village to be my village. I don't want to live with my husband and 5 children in a 1-room hut with walls made of mud and a roof made of straw and pitch. I don't want to live just a few miles from the Equator. I don't want to worry about my children dying of malnutrition. I like my 2-car garage and my air conditioning and my McDonalds.

But if I can give them just a tiny bit of help, so that their village can be what they dream it to be, then maybe I can say I'm a part of their village. That would make me very proud. THAT would make me smile.

To read the follow-up to this post, about the response from Pastor Moses, click on this story, The Returned Gift. If you feel moved to make a donation for Pastor Moses and the Neema House of Mercy School, please click on the "donate" button in the sidebar. Thank you!

(All photographs taken by someone in the African village, except the one at the top with my watermark).

Texan Mama


Anna See said...

Wow! I loved hearing about this village. You are so right about how our situations just do not compare to how the rest of the world lives. We are called to make a difference.

Jennifer said...

Wow. I'm not even sure how to comment. That is a lot of emotion.

McMommy said...

If Pastor Moses responds to you, will you let us know? I'd like to help.

Gigi said...

Wow! Just, wow! It is true - we are blessed to live in America. And we take it for granted every stinking day.

Currently, I'm not in a position to help - but send me an email with all the details - because as soon as I can - I will help. I NEED to help.

Thank you for reminding us just how blessed we are.

misssrobin said...

Thank you. Just thank you.

Sugar said...

Whoa. Yet again, you inspire.
A humble thank you.

Bridgett said...

How nice to have tangible results.

I send money, when I can, to a priest in Uganda who went to SLU and lived at our parish several years ago. My $150 one time built bunk beds for a whole dormitory of boys--all of them AIDS orphans. They'd been sleeping on the floor. It made me feel sick and happy and sad and worried and blessed all at the same time.

SuzyQpon said...

I would really love to help when you hear back from them. If nothing else, when it's time again for school to begin and all of those freebies are available, perhaps your village + blogging community can work together to get some boxes of things sent. How sick I am to think of all of the paper, pens, pencils I just threw out of my son's room b/c they were a mess. How selfish of us!

mama hall said...


info said...

Incredible post! One day we will realize that even our poorest in the US are so much richer than those in other countries. Very well said - especially the part about not wishing for Ipods, etc. Here in the US ... 8-year-olds with Ipads and cell phones!?!? Rather than college, parents should save to send their kids around the world for a year living with others less fortunate. Better education and they'll come back being thankful for what they have!

Kristi said...

Wow, beautiful post - so authentic and touching.

Anonymous said...

A touching account- thank you for sharing.

Life with Kaishon said...

Oh Gretchen. I just love this. I wish I had something to give today. I only have $2 in my checking account right now. I am going to pray that God gives me something so I can give it to them.

Real Life In A Minute said...

What a heart warming story. They are lucky to know you and you are lucky also. Thanks for sharing.


Marie said...

Your time will come again to help them out financially. Prayer is great for now. :) You are busy raising your kids, I think they understand. ;)