"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink ..." --Matthew 25:35-36
Jesus' words are a powerful and inspiring reminder as I sit in my office browsing on news websites the stories and images of the staggering tragedy unfolding in the Horn of Africa.
Nearly 10 million people are "critically short of food," according to the United Nations, due to what UN officials say is the region's worst drought since I was born 60 years ago. Those 10 million people live in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Djibouti and war-ravaged Somalia.
For some, the stories and images will be reminders of the Ethiopian famine. Twenty-five years ago, the images of bloated, dying children, images unlike any others seen before by millions of Americans, prompted a massive outpouring of donations and offers to help. That outpouring culminated in the "Live Aid," concerts in Philadelphia and London, the latter of which brought a group I had never heard of before to the world's attention -- U2.
For others, the name "Somalia" brings back the events of 1991-1994 when hundreds of thousands of Somalis were starving, prompting a U.S.-led peacekeeping force to intervene. That effort led to a military operation against Somali warlords and, regrettably, the deaths of 42 American soldiers.
I am reminded of two things.
First, the faces, the voices and the stories of people I've met in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda. Kenya was the first nation I visited after joining World Vision in 1998, and where I learned one of the most important lessons of my life: Poverty is not an image, or a statistic; poverty has a face, a name and a story.
Second, I am reminded of the powerful and provocative quote from Josef Stalin: "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic."
I fear that for many Americans -- Christians and people of other faiths or no faith -- will devote little time or attention, let alone resources, to the people suffering in the Horn of Africa. Rather they are preoccupied with "First World problems":
- How fluctuations in the stock market are affecting my 401(k) investments;
- Where to go on my next vacation;
- Whether to buy "name brand" or "store brand" items in the supermarket;
- Which diet and workout regimen will enable me to lose 10 pounds in a month; or
- The struggle over my next computer -- a notebook, a laptop, or the new iPad2?
Or worse, they are obsessed with finding out where Casey Anthony might be living, now that she's been released from jail after being acquitted of charges that she murdered her daughter, Caylee. Thousands of Americans followed Ms. Anthony's trial closely, and expressed outrange when she was found not guilty. They wanted justice for Caylee's death. Where's their outrage or sense of justice for the millions of children at-risk of dying in the Horn of Africa? Their lack of attention proves the late Soviet premier's admonition.
Many "First World" Americans have never met a person with "Third World problems":
- Whose income is2 a day and who has never heard of a 401 (K);
- Whose only travel plans are traipsing by foot from Somalia into Kenya to a refugee camp;
- Whose primary source of drinking water is infested with animal feces, and has never been inside a supermarket;
- Who lost 10 pounds in the last week because of too little or even no food, and who has no use for a health club membership; or
- Who has no access to electricity, and does not need -- and maybe has not ever seen -- a computer.
I have the privilege of knowing people facing both First World and Third World problems. It is a privilege because, I believe, Jesus would consider it a privilege. He met with, ate meals alongside and learned from those His society considered its lowest and its outcasts -- prostitutes, tax-collectors, the poor and victims of injustice.
He would have been honored to meet and serve people like Hawo, a woman believed to be about 75-years-old who lives in Kalabeyr, a remote town in northern Somalia. Thanks to my World Vision colleagues working in the region, I know more about Hawo, than I ever will know -- or even want to know -- about Casey Anthony.
After the drought killed the more than 500 goats and sheep Hawo and her eight children lived on, they were forced to abandon their pastoral way of life and move to Kalabeyr. The nine of them live in a makeshift tukul, a small room within the compound of one of the town residents.
With no more livestock to provide for her family, and no money to buy water for drinking and cooking, she walks to a local market to beg for five or 10 liters of water.
She would love to buy 20 liters, but the price is beyond her reach: 40 cents. That's less than half the change I leave in the jar for tips at my local Starbucks.
It is Hawo whom Mark Bowden, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, might have been thinking of when he said recently: "Resources are woefully inadequate. We have an appeal that is at the moment only 40 per cent met. ... (W)e find ourselves as the humanitarian community in a position that we want and are able to do more, but just don't have the resources with which to do it."
Jesus' words about hunger and thirst, as quoted in Matthew, led me a few years ago to create an NIT version (New Irreverent Translation), one that Americans obsessed with "First World problems" might relate to:
"For I was hungry, while you had all you needed. I was thirsty, but you drank bottled water."
We did not create the desperate conditions of drought and famine threatening the lives of 10 million people in the Horn of Africa. But, as Christians, it is our responsibility to do something about it. It is our moral duty to help our neighbors in need -- here in the U.S. and elsewhere, and God commands us to help those we have the means to help. We cannot look at their situation -- on television, in newspapers or magazines, or on the Internet -- shrug our shoulders, and say, "Not my problem."