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?
* * *
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.)
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.
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.
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.