“Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12
It was our second trip to West Africa. We were back on the dry sandy desert fringes of Niger doing a food distribution. It was such a barren land made worse by an ongoing drought. The people would do just about anything for food. While we had prepared to feed many of the people, truthfully, we couldn’t feed them all. So, families with the greatest need were chosen. We would go to their villages the day before the food distribution and meet with them and do some registration work before the distribution.
It is hard to describe the poverty there. Simply put, most of the people had nothing. They had little food and little water but something amazing happened everywhere we went. We would gather with the leaders and the people in their village. We would give them a word of greeting and then they would greet us. All of this, of course, was done with the help of interpreters. After a while, we would complete the necessary paperwork and finalize details for them to come to main village the next day. And then, it would be time to say goodbye for the day.
This was a repeat of the greeting we had done when we arrived. They would graciously thank us for coming and we would graciously thank them for allowing us to come. Then it happened…every time. These incredibly poor people would present us with gifts. Often it was some sort of leather craft decorated according to their customs and their people group. It was such a gracious act of kindness and we always left feeling incredibly blessed. They who had so little gave to us who had so much.
It was the last appointment of the day. We drove and drove—it was more than several kilometers. When we arrived at the site, we realized it wasn’t a village it was just a meeting place. The people we were to meet were truly nomads. Someone had set up a large tent made from skins and rugs to offer some shade from the searing Saharan Desert sun. When we arrived, there was one or two people there but soon many more arrived and the area under the tent was filled with five white guys and a bunch of men whose skin was tough like leather and tanned a deep brown. Then we really saw it.
In the middle of the tent and now surrounded by people sat a medium sized metal bowl. In the bowl was what can only be described as dirty, brown water. As I looked at the bowl you could see something swimming. It was the larva from some sort of insect native to Niger. I assumed that perhaps this was for us to wash our hands though I was quite certain my hands were cleaner than the water in the bowl. I would soon find out that the water wasn’t for washing.
Soon the greeting started. We thanked them for letting us come and they thanked us for coming. Then someone in their group made the presentation. It wasn’t a brightly colored trinket…it was the gift of water. And the brown water in the bowl wasn’t for washing hands soiled by the West African dust. No, it was a portion of their precious drinking water. That brown water with larva swimming it in was what they drank every day, and they were offering something very precious to them—something they could ill afford to give.
Ordinarily, we would try and eat or drink what they offered, but our missionary knew, and we knew, that one drink of this water would make us very seriously ill. So, through the interpreter our missionary explained that while we deeply appreciated their kindness and generosity, we could not partake in the water for that reason. They certainly understood so the water remained throughout our visit. At the end we reversed the greeting process and climbed aboard our four-wheel drive for the long drive back to where we were staying.
The ride was quieter than normal. Each one of us was clearly aware of what had just happened. We all were pierced to our hearts over this act of immense generosity and the immense blessings that God had graciously poured on our lives. Mission trips tend to do this to anyone who travels to a third world country. There is always some kind of guilt over having so much while those you serve have so little. But understanding God’s grace and humbly serving others at least helps. But it always changes you. It always marks your life.
In my mind’s eye I can clearly see the bowl of water all these years later. I can still see the people coming through the gate after walking kilometers to get their food. I can still see them trying to manage the heavy bags of rice and millet. But something was missing. Not one person complained about the lack of a vehicle to carry their load. Each was just grateful to be able to eat that night. And, yes, we were changed again. I would like to think that a little of their gratitude rubbed off on us and that it still remains. I know we will never forget those eleven or twelve days in Niger.
You don’t have to go to Africa, or Haiti, or Nicaragua, or London, or China, or Bulgaria, or the Philippines or wherever to serve. Each of us are missionaries on a mission field and each of us can serve others…just like Jesus did. One day He was sitting on a hillside teaching the people and He said, “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.” It really is that simple. It won’t get you to heaven…God’s grace and faith in what Jesus did on the cross does that. But it is an opportunity to be like Him…to love like Him. It’s a tall order but don’t worry, you know that He’s got this too.