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FIRST-PERSON: How God taught me to care about poverty

NORTH AFRICA (BP)–I’m going to be upfront about this: I never gave much thought to people in poverty-stricken places around the world who didn’t have enough to eat. Nor did I worry that they had no access to clean drinking water or basic health care.

I wasn’t concerned about where my money should be going because I wanted an iPhone. Still do. Not the older iPhone mind you — the new one, Apple’s 3GS with a video camera and speedier processor. But every time I seriously consider forking out $200 to acquire this piece of technological wizardry, God reminds me about the difference between wants and needs.

On Oct. 11, Southern Baptist churches across the United States will observe World Hunger Sunday. It’s meant to focus our attention on the global epidemic of poverty and challenge us to do something about it by giving our hard-earned, recession-strapped cash to the World Hunger Fund, which Southern Baptist missionaries use to help hurting people across the globe (including the United States).

But in my insulated, suburban utopia, where my church spends more to air condition our sanctuary on Sunday morning than a poor person in Africa earns in a year, true poverty is a hard concept to grasp. At least, it was.

Earlier this year, the International Mission Board, where I work as a writer, sent me to North Africa to write a story about a team of doctors and nurses who run a medical clinic near the Sahara Desert. They use medicine to show Jesus’ love to a town of more than 17,000 Muslims that, until the team’s arrival, had no known Christians or churches.

The country where the medical team lives can’t be identified without risking their work or the safety of the national believers with whom they partner. But the World Bank and United Nations Human Development index rank it among the poorest places on the planet.

While I was there, I tagged along with one of the clinic’s mobile medical teams as they went into the bush to give vaccinations to children in an outlying village.

Most of the families there survive as farmers or shepherds, living on less than $2 a day. There’s no electricity or running water. Animal dung litters every inch of the village; its stench permeates the air.

The shots are the only medical care most of these children have ever received. There was no hospital or doctor when their mothers delivered them on the dirt floor of their hut. Some are sick; many are malnourished. There’s no source of clean water for them to drink or use to bathe.

My eyes welled with tears as I watched the spectacle. True poverty is hard to stomach.

I suddenly remembered channel surfing at home, punching my television’s remote every time I saw one of those ads asking for money to help feed needy children in Africa. Now I understood why — I wanted to ignore the problem. Those images of distended tummies and flies swarming children’s faces disturbed me. I didn’t want to be confronted with the reality of their existence because I would be forced to act. So I turned the channel.

But as I stood in that North African village, there was no remote control to change what I was viewing. This was poverty I could see, smell and touch.

I thought of my own daughters, a 2-year-old and a 6-month-old, and how much I love them. How I would do anything for them. And how I wish I could somehow lift each and every one of these precious children from the shackles of abject poverty.

Here’s another confession: In my 15 years as a member of a Southern Baptist church, I have never given to the World Hunger Fund. Sure, I’ve tithed, contributed to my church’s building campaign, helped Lottie and Annie (international and North American mission offerings). But somehow there was never enough left over after satisfying my “needs” to do what Jesus asks of every believer in Matthew 25 — feed the hungry, clothe the naked and care for the sick.

That’s exactly what this medical team is doing in North Africa. Though the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering are used to support and sustain them on the field, it’s the World Hunger Fund that finances their medical ministry — this year to the tune of $107,000.

Without the World Hunger Fund, there would be no money for the mobile clinics like the one I witnessed. World Hunger funds buy vaccines and syringes, gas for the clinic’s truck — not to mention paying for the vehicle itself.

But that’s just the beginning. World hunger funds support the clinic’s pediatric malnutrition program, which provides meals for children ages 5 and younger.

World hunger funds keep the medical team’s clinic in business, providing salaries for the staff of national nurses, medicines for the pharmacy, equipment and supplies for exam rooms and a generator for electricity.

It’s important to know that every penny given to the World Hunger Fund goes straight to helping lift someone out of poverty. Gifts are split 80/20 between IMB and the North American Mission Board. No administrative or promotional costs are taken out because the money is disbursed through workers like Chuck Castle,* the Southern Baptist doctor who founded the clinic.

It’s too early to tell what effect the recession might have on giving to the World Hunger Fund this October. In 2008 Southern Baptists gave $6.1 million to the fund, the lowest offering since 2000. Still, that money helped fund more than 300 human needs projects throughout the world last year, including relief following a 7.9 earthquake that struck China’s Sichuan province and hurricanes that slammed Myanmar and Cuba.

Let’s be honest — giving isn’t easy, especially in a tough economy where people are losing jobs and homes.

Finances at my house are extremely tight, and sometimes it’s hard not to feel sorry for myself. But it’s even harder to whine about wanting a new cell phone when I look into the face of a child who won’t eat anything more than a few grains of rice today.

Please join me in giving generously to the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund this year through your church.
*Names changed. Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board.

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  • Don Graham