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.
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.