“Community” and My Disenchantment With It.

I have a little confession. I’ve had beef with the word “community” for a few years now. I always kinda squirm when people ask me, “So do you have community?” I never know exactly what they’re asking. I sometimes feel that it is a sneaky way to say, “So… do you have people in your life that hold you accountable to not sinning?” But I can’t blame anyone for asking it. I’ve asked it too.

This week has given me a new definition(s) of the word community.

Community is not accountability to sinless-ness. Jesus has already given us that.

Community is the people who surround you that ease your burdens.

Community is the people who fight the same battles that you do; laugh when you laugh, cry when you cry.

Community is the people who are in the exact same predicament you are in. All the same struggles, all the same questions.

Community is the group of people where, when you enter the room, you can collapse on the sofa and not care if the way you’re sitting makes you look like you have a double chin.

Community is those who are equal to you.

Maybe this is a hard concept for me in America because our churches and lives are set up in hierarchies. There’s the head pastor, and then the assistant pastors. There’s all the people that teach classes, head up the different ministries. And then the small group leaders. And then there’s us. You know. The people just trying to attend church and get it right. We identify people that have it together just a little more. Men and women with families we wish we had. People who don’t seem to struggle with what we struggle with. People that seem…not all that equal.

It makes sense that community in this environment seems contrived, uncomfortable, and insecure. It makes sense that we feel we are always lacking, or unsafe to be ourselves. It makes sense that “having community” makes me feel like someone might ask me to change who I am, and they’d be right, because they’re a better person than I am.

And then, even among “us,” the people at the bottom who are just trying to get it right, there is better and worse. They make more money than we do. She’s prettier than I am. He has a better personality than I do. Their kids go to the rich kid school. Her parents are paying for her college education. They take more vacations.

When no one seems equal, and community IS equality, it makes sense that community is nearly impossible to find and hold onto.

Maybe this is why I struggled to understand how child sponsorship positively affects an entire community, and how a community even operates. I think in dollars and cents, roles and leadership, individuality and families.

* * *

Meet Ramnamma.

She was born in India, and her family still lives there. When she was 16, a extended family member from Bangladesh visited her family and asked if he could marry their daughter. He told her parents that he had a good government job, and a home, and would take care of her. Eager to guarantee security for their daughter, they agreed, and they were married almost immediately.

And then he brought her here.

“My home is..four or five times bigger in India. My parents cannot come visit because they cannot see the conditions where my family lives. They think we have good jobs, big house. This would make them sad.” She shares this bed we are sitting on with her husband and 2 teenage sons.

And yet when we ask what we can pray for her when we leave, she says, “That my neighbors would be as happy as I am.”

Ramnamma is 36 now. She wakes at 4am and travels to go sweep the streets. So does her husband. She is in the lowest caste, and this is considered a job for the “untouchables.” They live in a slum. She has two sons, 15 and 18. In a culture where daughters are a burden and sons are the security of a family, she is a blessed woman. Most women I have met have 3 or 4 daughters, and one son. That son will provide for his parents in their old age, and for their sisters unless they are married. As well as their own wife and children.

“So you can see, it is important that my sons go to university. I dream for them that they start a business. Or that they help people travel to India. I do not want for them the job I have.”

I ask what she does with her time when she comes home from work at 11am, since her husband is away working all day and her sons are in school.

“I sell snacks!” and her face brightens. She points to the bags of chips hanging from her doorway. The translator explains that she is part of a Women’s Savings Group through Food for the Hungry, and has been for the last 5 years.

I ask what this means for her.

“I meet with women, my friends, one time a week and we learn to do things. We save our money, ah, 15 cents a week. I take a loan from the group to buy these things, and now I have things to do. My husband, we much happier because I do this. Our marriage happier. My sons, they have no chance to go to university but now I know they can go. I am happy woman. Very grateful to Food for the Hungry.”

She beams, and talks faster and faster and she gets more comfortable. It is so precious to me how introverted and shy these women are.

I ask what she did before Food for the Hungry came to her community to teach her how to do these things.

“Ahh…” She looks embarrassed and looks to her friend for encouragement. “I do nothing. I worry for my boys.”

“What brings you the most joy in life?” Logan asks, sitting beside me.

“The children. The happiness on the little children’s faces when they come to buy one snack. It makes my day very good.”

I ask her if she misses having little children, and she does. But she looks forward to her sons getting married, after university. I think of my own mother, and how many times I have heard her say this. We are all the same.

* * *

Immediately after leaving her home, we get to visit a Woman’s Savings Group a few doors down from hers.

Devi is the girl who now teaches this tiny crowded room of older women. She was massively malnourished as a young girl, and is probably only 4′ 6″ tall and 80 pounds. She only completed school through grade 5. When Food for the Hungry partnered with their community, not a single woman in the room could read or write. 7 years later, Devi is fluent in 3 languages, can support herself on her new candlemaking skills, can operate a beauty parlor, and teaches these women lessons on nutrition before my eyes.

All of these women can now read and write, and can balance a checkbook. They are fully equipped to run their own small businesses from their home, to support their children. In only 7 years, this community has been radically changed from an impoverished group of families with no ability to offer their children a better life to one where the women make up for lost time as their little babies go to school a few doors down.

It is because the children in this community have sponsors, that all of this happens. After a week of hearing these stories, I slowly begin to understand how sponsoring one child can have this much impact.

I slowly begin to understand that this is community.

This is how simple and how beautiful it is.

Community is just…life. Willing to give, willing to receive. Willing to believe that we are all equal, and no one moves forward without the other.

How silly of me to think that a small child could survive on her own, and how silly of me to think that sponsoring that child would affect no one else’s life but hers.

Ramnamma’s sons will provide for her into her old age, and she will see them begin better families of their own.

Devi, though probably unable to bear children, will prevent dozens or more children in her little neighborhood from the malnourishment that stunted her growth. She will teach their mothers that vegetables contain vitamins, and how to create things to that bring income and security with the small resources that they have.

These four-hundred-and-something children will graduate school and have a chance to leave the slums.

Within a few years, Food for the Hungry will re-allocate their resources to another slum community, but the child sponsorship program here will continue to change the future of literally thousands of people.

If you want to join me in sponsoring one of these children in Bangladesh, please do. I never knew before this week what $32 a month can do.

Click here to sponsor a child in Bangladesh.

What It Was Like To Meet My Sponsored Child – Something I Never, Ever, Ever Thought I’d Do.

Yesterday morning I woke up at 5 a.m. Dhaka time with an hour and a half drive ahead of us. Today was the day. I was going to meet the child I sponsor.

When I learned I’d be going on this trip to Bangladesh with Food for the Hungry, Max & I decided to sponsor a little girl named Kajol through their program. Max already sponsored a little boy through Watoto, and I a little girl through WorldVision, but I knew somehow that this was necessary. Although always a skeptic about where my money is going, and if non profit organizations actually give what they say they give, I’ve learned that generosity and trust are two beautiful things I want to possess. And so I am practicing.

I had no idea what to expect when we left for their small rural town. I felt a sort of guilty for knowing so little about her. I had zero relationship before meeting her. A friend of mine once got to meet a child they’d sponsored for years, and said it changed their life. I remember thinking, “How amazing would that be!” adding it to my assumed list of things that, let’s be honest, would never happen to me.

We drove out of Dhaka proper, and through rural areas….

there is no room for landfills, so they burn their trash. this is common alongside the roads.

…and had devotions with the staff working in the small village when we arrived. All the staff are locals, so they all speak Bengali. While it is awkward and clumsy to repeat everything in 2 languages, I’ve learned that the heart of God and the heart of man are exquisitely simple, despite their vastness. It is slowly calming the noise in my head I’ve grown accustomed to crazy from hearing.

The villages are small, but they have something like a long “main” road with little roads shooting off that end in groups of little homes, built amidst a jungle of trees. Empty fields break out into the background in certain places. Joy and Logan went to their respective little road to meet their sponsored children, and Max and I walked down our little road with our translator.

I have no idea what I was expecting, but I thought maybe someone would point a child out of a crowd of them and say, “That’s Kajol! The girl you sponsor!” And maybe we would hug and I could meet her family.

Instead, we walked into the center of the group of little homes, and every single person and child gathered instantly around us, staring unabashedly. Our translator rattled off some Bengali to a few women, peeked his head into a little home, and informed me, “They have powdered her face. This is, this…this is unusual. Come this way.”

photos by esther havens

A tiny, tiny girl in a bright gold dress appeared in the doorway, face to the ground. Her mother pushing her forward, I saw that she was full-body shaking. Her face had been powdered a shade lighter than her skin, her hair was wetted down with a flower barrette planted right on top, and she was wearing the jewelry of every woman in the village. Necklaces, bracelet after bracelet, rings, eye shadow, eye liner, all of it. Contrasted with the half-dressed, dusty children, it looked like she was being offered as a sacrifice to the white people coming to her village. She walked towards us slowly, eyes never lifting.

My heart was crushed in that moment.

Everyone in the village was clamoring round, shouting or whispering, pointing and staring. All at this tiny, tiny girl who seemed to have no idea what was going on – and at me, the overwhelmed introvert, who felt handicapped and unprepared in a thousand ways.

What was I doing here? Who is this child? I love her. I love her I love her I love her. She is so scared. I am so uncomfortable. What do I do? What do I say? She is shaking. I’m going to cry. I’m crying. Everyone be quiet. I want to hug her. I want to take her away. Please look up at me so you can see in my eyes that I love you and that I am safe. I CANNOT MAKE HER FEEL SAFE. Please feel safe, please feel safe, please feel safe.

I commanded every cell in my body to attempt to orchestrate a smile on my face. Maybe if she sees me smile she will know I am a safe person and there is no reason to be afraid. Have you tried to smile hard and not cry at the same time? It makes it all worse.

I reached out my hand to touch her. Maybe if she felt my hand on her shoulder she would feel comforted. She jumped, and I choked. I looked to Max with a desperate hope he would be able to miraculously do something, anything, to make this better for me and for this tiny dolled-up creature.

“Amar nam, Lauren.” I choked out as I put my hand over my heart. “What is the word for beautiful?” I asked the translator the thousandth time. I still cannot remember. I want to tell her I love her, she is beautiful, she is safe. I expect nothing. I have only love and gifts to give. She owes me nothing. I want to apologize for this nonsense and for putting us both in a situation that terrifies both of us. I want to say, “It’s okay. I am shy too.”

But all I can say is amar nam, my name is Lauren. All I can do is squat at her eye level as she and her auntie put flowers-strung-on-thread necklaces around my neck, and try to keep the feeling of guilt from drowning me entirely. I do not deserve these gifts.

I ask if we can go sit somewhere. This standing with everyone around me is just terrible. The translator nods and points to a blanket set out for us on some sort of porch of someone’s home. I reach down and take her tiny hand to walk with her. She reaches up to take mine too, and it’s freezing. I walk slowly with her, a crushing combination of frustration and love welling inside me with each step as I realize that I am beyond unprepared for this. I should have studied her language. I should have read her sponsor sheet more closely. I should have asked more questions about what to do when this moment came.

I sit on the blanket next to Kajol and Max. The translator sits, Heidi sits, and a beautiful young woman in a red and gold Salwar Kameez sits next to Kajol. I am told it is her mother. With a massive sigh of relief, I smile as big as I can and rattle off my statements and questions. “Amar nam Lauren! Apnar Nam ke? I have ech bhai, dui bon (one sister, two brothers). How many children do you have? Where is your husband? What is his job? I am so excited to be here. You are lovely.” I ask again what the word for “beautiful” is. The translator nods his approval at my Bengali attempts and fills in for my English.

I ask Kajol about her younger sisters. I ask what she likes to do.

Sweet Heidi reminds me I can simply ask her anything I’d ask a six year old in America. “But I’m already terrible at this in English, I can’t do it here!!”

Kajol is still shaking, staring at the ground. She’s still too shy to make eye contact. I remember being told yesterday that girls here love to dance, so I ask if she likes to sing or dance. Her mother starts yelling and nodding and gesturing, and the translator tells me that she wants Kajol to sing a song for us. “No! No! She doesn’t have to! No, please. Don’t. I just wanted to know.” I start waving my arms. Dear God I’ve just gone and made this whole thing even worse. Her mother keeps nodding and insisting and Kajol stands on the blanket. Her tiny, quiet voice starts singing.

[if you cannot view the video of her singing, click here]

I keep a smile plastered on my face and try as hard as I can not to cry. I clap and clap when she finishes. I ask about her school, and she jumps up, runs to get her school books to show me. She reads an English poem, a Bengali poem, and points at her math. “She is very bright for only 6 years old!!” our translator tells us. I ask if she picked the flowers from along the street or if she has a garden. She wants to take me to her garden. She grabs my hand, jumps up again, and leads me to a large bush of marigolds.

I ask the translator if every family has a cow, or if they share. Her family has a cow, and I learn that cows are her favorite animal. I happen to adore cows too, and I suddenly realize that maybe I am right at home here, and this is much more simple than I am making it. Kajol darts ahead of me and we walk across a little plot of land to meet her cow. I’m not allowed to pet the cow because livestock isn’t safe for me, and EVERYTHING IN MY BODY ACHES BECAUSE I CAN’T HUG EVERYTHING. Hugging is my coping mechanism and here in this culture it’s not even appropriate to hug my husband, though he seems to be the only thing here that won’t give me a parasite.

photos by esther havens

I ask if we can give her the gifts we brought for her, and the translator agrees that it is an appropriate time (finally!) and we walk back to her home. She shares one room with her mother, her 4 year old sister, and the 2 month old baby. They sleep in the same bed, and their father comes home one day a week. He works in Dhaka, at least 2 hours away. The entire “neighborhood” follows us back and crowds around up into the doorway to watch. There are no doors, no privacy, and “can we come over?” is a concept that does not exist.

We sit on the bed and Max pulls a coloring and sticker book out of his backpack, a stack of pretty stationary, and a box of crayons. As we hand them to her, her entire demeanor changes. Completely enraptured, she instantly starts coloring. I watch her color in the lines without a single flaw, and when she is done, I watch her count the crayons on the box and see that she puts them back in the box to match the color order on the package.

“Kajol is OCD!” I laugh and announce to Max. She stacks the stationary on the coloring book, the crayons on the stationary, in order of size, and carefully stands atop her pillow to store them with her 3 school books.

photos by esther havens

After half an hour of coloring and playing with stickers with her, she has adopted me as her new best friend. She finally smiles, she laughs, and she looks me in the eyes. She jumps around and sits in my lap. I decide to go exploring with her, and ask her to walk me around. I find a tiny white flower in the grass and pick it for Kajol. I hand it to her, and one to her friend, and they run ahead of me out into a giant field of mustard plants and pick flower after flower after flower to give to me. For the next half hour, flower picking and giving is the game. All of the children in the village participate, and yes. This. This is all I’ve wanted. I can do this. This is me.

photos by yours truly

When it’s time to leave, I realize I will most likely never see this child again. I cannot let myself think about it. She is my baby sister now. She is a child. She has a personality. She is shy, and smart, and bright. She is organized. She is quiet. She loves her friends. She loves flowers and cows. She loves her baby sister.

But most importantly, because of the sponsorship program that FH has introduced into their little village, Kajol will live her childhood as a child. She will go to primary school, and she will have the opportunity to attend university. She will not need to be married at 15 like her mother. She will not need to work and drag her 40 pound body through manual labor to help provide for her mother. She will grow into a woman who, unlike most women around her, will be able to read and write. She will learn a trade. She will never have to wish she had an older sister, because she will have one in me. She will have someone to speak hope and care to her, and someone to believe that she has potential and value no matter what anyone around her says.

Never in my life will I be able to find something better to spend $32 a month on. And I will forever remember the difference a friendship makes to this sweet little girl.

If you want to sponsor a child and give them a life they couldn’t have otherwise, please do. Click this link. All my love to you.

Day 2 In Dhaka, Bangladesh – & What I’m Upset I Didn’t Know About Until Today

When Lindsey asked me if I would consider going to Bangladesh with Food for the Hungry, I googled the location as I fumbled for some sort of reply that was neither yes or no. I thought it was a city. And I couldn’t remember if it was Asian or an island in the Mediterranean.

It must be tiny, I thought.

As I scanned Wikipedia, phone to my ear, I saw that nearly a hundred and fifty million people lived there. I googled the United States’ population quickly. 315 million. And then I noticed this paragraph:

The most densely populated? Why did I not know this? Sandwiched between China and India, countries I’m well familiar with and know to be massively populated, how have I never read about the entire country of Bangladesh? 150 million people that I have essentially never heard of?

Then I noticed the size. Equal to the state of New York.

Half of America inside of little New York.

I’ve always wanted to go on a missions trip. I’ve always wanted to visit a third world country. I’ve been told for years that when I go, it will change my life. Every kid in my high school youth group went, and it seems I can’t make it 24 hours on Twitter without seeing someone leaving for Africa or Haiti. This is what Christian people do. Sort of like baptism – that thing that everyone around me has done at least once, but for some reason, I just seem to be one step behind.

I tell Lindsey that I think I want to go. It terrifies me, but this is a rite of passage. I ask her what specifically we will be doing.

I always thought I would go to Latin America or Africa to accomplish something – build a home, dig a well. She talked about the girls, the women, and the culture. Blogging, writing, and seeing what Food for the Hungry was doing. I’m pretty sure I asked her the same question three times. What will we be doing? What do you want me to do? What is the project? I couldn’t understand why it was important for me to just go and see.

Trips like this are for doing, for helping, for giving; why do you need me to just see?

* * *

photo by daniel white

We arrived yesterday in Dhaka, and were taken to our hotel. It was explained to us that we were staying in the Beverly Hills of Dhaka, and I looked around at the rickshaws, piles of burning trash, feral dogs, and half dressed children running through the dust roads. This is the wealthy area, the decent part of urban Dhaka. Not the slums, and not the rural villages.

In the morning we would go to one of the slums to meet an untouchable people group, the Telegu, and see the school that Food for the Hungry had begun 30 years ago for the children there. Brought from India to sweep garbage out of the streets in the section of Dhaka dedicated to landfills, this entire people group is born, lives, and dies as the lowest of the low. For now, we were to catch up on sleep after 24 hours of travel, eat, and give our body a few hours to adjust to the culture shock, best we could.

To be honest, I prepared myself well for culture shock. I spent month prior to this trip staring poverty and homelessness in the face while moving through my daily life in Los Angeles and driving through Skid Row. I forced myself to make eye contact, to acknowledge, to pray, to process ahead of time. (I know, go ahead. You can laugh at me. I’m laughing at myself too.)

photos by yours truly

When we left our hotel at 6:50am Dhaka time, I was (mildly) prepared for the dirt poor, for the hopeless, for unsanitary living conditions. I was prepared to feel guilty for my extravagant lifestyle. I was prepared to see children I could not help, women I could not offer freedom to, and sickness I could not heal. I knew shock was coming, and warded it off with my well-perfected coping skills (AKA pushing the “turn all emotions off” button).

What I was not prepared for was that which follows.

When we got to the school, we greeted the tiny, barefoot children and made our way to a small, dimly-lit room to have morning devotion with the school staff. They are all locals, and we began to go around the table for introductions.

“I am Joseph,” the young man sitting directly across from me stood and announced. “I was a sponsored child. I am now the headmaster and teacher at this school.”

This set of statements was made with a mind-blowing combination of pure pride and utter humility. He grinned from ear to ear, teeth shining bright, looking around at all of us to see if we had understood his broken English.

“I am very grateful that I was a sponsored child and that I now can be teacher and headmaster of this good school.”

The young man sitting next to him stood up and announced that he also was a sponsored child. And the next. And the next. All four of these men had been sponsored as young boys, been saved from a childhood of manual labor, and were able to get an education because of their sponsors. An education so good that they now taught and raised the next generation of children in this slum.

photo by esther havens

Instead of broken men and women like others in their class who rose at 5am every morning to sweep the roads with straw brooms and hunched backs, they had fulfilled lives. Hope. Joy. Love. Community. Purpose.

More than that, they had been transformed into human beings who were able to believe that God had created them as individuals with potential and talent, instead of confined to the worthless, untouchables that all of Bangladesh’s society saw them as. Typically unable to attend school or associate with other Bengalis, this school is the first of its kind. A school that has changed how these people view themselves before God and before their society.

And it is made possible by those that sponsor children.

To be honest, this is what I have been upset about all day. Sponsoring children has been a part of my life since I was 13 or 14 years old. My family sponsored children and I wrote letters and sent money with my allowance. When I went to college, I sponsored a new girl on my own. And before this trip, I decided to sponsor a second young girl whom I will have the incredible opportunity to meet on Tuesday.

But my WHOLE life I have sponsored children with the impression that I was simply being a good person and helping to pay daily bills or expenses that they were unable to afford.

I didn’t know that this $32 a month was the difference between learning in school with bright eyed friends and sweeping dirt out from under busses and rickshaws and animals as a 7 year old in order to provide for their sick mother or orphaned siblings.

photos by esther havens

I had no idea that this small $30-ish a month was literally changing a human being’s entire life and their whole family. I had no idea that it didn’t just put food on the table.

I wish I had known that the letters I sent (or did not send) were the only voice a young girl had in her life to tell her that she was beautiful, smart, talented. That I was the only person to say, “I believe in you. I pray for you. I see you as special, as important, as valuable.”

Oh how I wish I had known. How I wish, all these years, that I had heard even a whisper of these lives that were being changed not just for a month at a time, but for a lifetime. How I wish I had known that these were my brothers and sisters in Christ, and I had the opportunity to give them a life of hope that I was simply born into without asking and without deserving. How I wish I had known that this was more than money and “providing” and “giving to the poor.”

How I wish.

But this is what I needed to see, so very badly. Thank you, Food for the Hungry, and every human being who has ever sponsored a child.

With Love, From Istanbul.

The adventure has begun!

[ I am traveling with Food For The Hungry to Dhaka, Bangladesh with Max, Daniel, Lindsey, Logan, and Joy. You can read about the birth of this trip here and you can follow our trip page here. You can also follow the hashtag #fhbloggers on Twitter and Instagram and see all the massive amounts of photos & updates we’re sharing! ]

I write to you from a corner of the Istanbul International Airport, up against a wall plastered in DUTY FREE signs and advertisements by Gucci, Boss, and of course, Starbucks.

It’s a little surreal to know that you’ve just flown to the other side of the planet and yet as an English speaking person, even Istanbul feels like just another airport. My language is on nearly everything. I am privileged, and keenly aware that I did not choose this life for myself. The American dream lives, sleeps, and breathes all over the world – even though, as our Romanian neighbor told us Tuesday, “This is no better than where I come from. This dream seems glorious, but no. Now that I am here, I see it is the same. And the hardships are even greater. My home is better than all of this.”

My greatest complaint of the last 16 hours is that my husband didn’t have quite enough leg room for his 6’2″ self on this aircraft that spanned 9 seats and 2 aisles across.

My second complaint is that I haven’t a clue what time it is for my body, for this airport, or for where I am headed. I left LAX on Thursday evening, and will arrive in Dhaka on Saturday morning. I hope you all enjoyed Friday, because it was just removed from my life.

But seriously. I really, really missed this part of traveling that I grew accustomed to while road-tripping with Max for 7 months last year. I missed the harsh reminder that time is an false safety net against a wasted or uncontrolled life; it simply exists so that not everything happens all at once. I am thankful to remember again that I hold no ability to measure my life, but only to choose well and full in the moment.

We have 2 hours until we board our second plane, a 7 hour flight into Dhaka. I have crayons, pretty paper, and elaborate sticker books tucked into my bag that I will hand to a little girl named Kajol in a few short days. She is 6 years old and lives in a small town outside of Dhaka. In a tiny shanty made of bamboo and tin, I’m told. This is the second time this week I will hand a small token of love and care to a human being who will experience life on Planet Earth in a way utterly incomparable to mine. I will be speechless again, I am sure, as I silently ask God how his heart can withstand a universe of compassion packed within it.

But for now now, I must go find my gate, and get some people watching in. 🙂

A little note: If you also want to sponsor a girl from Bangladesh, please do. The average daily income there is $1.20 USD, and our pocket change is their life. Just click the image below.

we purchased target’s entire travel section in prep for our first international trip, hah.

max having a rough time during hour 12

the crew, minus max & i!