“You’ll be changed by this,” That’s what they said.
“You’ll never be the same,” I heard repeatedly, as the time for departure grew closer.
“It’s going to be a hard trip”, People told me.
The only other experience that even comes close to this adventure with Compassion International, was a trip I took at 18 years old, to a reservation in the middle of North Dakota. That was my first brush with third world level poverty, and a measure of spiritual oppression I’ve not seen before or since. The reservation was a dark, hopeless place.
And so in packing for the Dominican I tucked my North Dakota experience into the corner of my mind. This was not that. This place would be different, I felt sure of that–though, how different I could not yet know.
I went as empty of expectations as humanly possible. I begged God to just make me open, so that I could fully experience the trip in the way that He intended for me. From the first day we set foot on the tile floor at Compassion Child development center 126, I knew already that I would be changed by this trip, but not for the reasons most people implied.
When you encounter extreme poverty, you gain a perspective that you otherwise cannot manufacture. Reading about it in books is one thing, but smelling it, facing it, and having a meal among those who truly have nothing, is an experience impossible to convey in writing. Words do not suffice. Standing in a 10 foot by 12 foot home, and realizing that this is all there is, does something to your heart and head for sure. I came home to abundance–or by many standards, excess, and I don’t know how to reconcile the haves and the have nots.
But the more we interacted with our Dominican brothers and sisters, the more I saw Jesus. I didn’t see their poverty the way I assumed I would because more than their lack I saw what they did have–
A.W. Tozer said, The man who has God for his treasure has all things in One.
I saw a people that treasured Christ, and because their treasures are laid up in the One by whom all things were made, I saw an unspeakable joy and passion for God that lessened the lack of the physical things. I experienced a level of love and hope that superseded the notion that these are a destitute people. Physically, they live in a poverty most of us can barely fathom. Spiritually, their wealth exceeded most of my fellow American friends and colleagues.
I continue to ask myself, which is the greater poverty? Is one worse off without food or without Christ? If one is starving, might they miss the opportunity to know Christ, should they die from physical starvation?
But the Word says that He is our portion, our daily bread–and so I wonder, can we not feast on Christ alone, and be filled? Is Christ enough?
Instinctively today, I want to say yes. But I have never been starving, or limited by income. I have never gone without in the way that my Dominican friends have, and so I wonder too, if that makes me unqualified to answer these questions. if my children went to bed hungry every night, would I still say Christ is enough? Every day we have to ask our selves, whatever happens today–is Christ enough?
I hope that my answer is always a confident “yes”. C.S. Lewis said, in his book, The Weight Of Glory,”He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only.”
During Sunday morning worship with our friends a few steps down the street from center 126, the roof was absolutely raised by the heartfelt worship that unfolded. These people, the ones whom we say say lack everything, demonstrated a wealth of love for God that moved me to tears. I could not speak but to watch and be humbled by their outrageous joy for a God who allows them to live with limitations most of us would find unbearable.
I believed this trip would change me, but I didn’t realize it would be the unbridled joy that would turn me inside out.
The people working alongside Compassion and the children at the center exhibited a passion for nurturing and giving like nothing I’ve ever seen. They say they are servant leaders, and refuse your compliments because they know it is by Him, and in Him and for Him that they live and move and have their being. The recognize in their physical poverty, that it is God who sustains them. And for this they rejoice continually.
I sit here now, with all of this in my lap. Picking through the definition of poverty, and combing slowly through the images of the beautiful people I had the opportunity to encounter. When I look at them, I see God. I see the beauty of the body of Christ in action. I see servitude towards one another that honors the dignity of humanity and the divinity of God.
I am changed because of joy. I am different because I realize now what Nehemiah meant when he said, “The Joy of the Lord is your strength”. (Nehemiah 8:10)
I don’t ignore the magnitude of their physical need. I don’t pretend that living on less than $2 a day is acceptable. But I have seen the power of praise and the satisfaction of souls that hunger and thirst for righteousness, and I have seen a fullness that any measure of food or things can never achieve.
God is enough–He is everything. The man who has God, has all things in One.