The one-hour hike after the last village is quiet. All of us string out on the trail, pondering what we’ve just heard and witnessed (or more accurately, didn’t witness). Thoughts and emotions are spinning in my head and my heart. In the middle of it all, I feel an uncomfortable tension. On one hand, I just want these thoughts and emotions to go away. I want to be back home, where I don’t have to think about a village pillaged by sex traffickers. This seems like too much reality. In a way, I want nothing more than to stick my head in the sand and pretend I never heard or saw what I’ve just experienced. It’s like a bad dream, and I just want to wake up and realize that none of this is true.
On the other hand, I want to do something. Now! I want to find a trafficker walking down a mountain with a little girl, shut him down, and take her back home. Or I want to rush down these mountains and rescue as many of these girls as I can. But I don’t know how. We’ve all heard that solutions to sex trafficking are complicated, and there are wise and unwise ways to go about fighting it.
Regardless of what it looks like, I just want to do something.
A Heartfelt Tension
That tension I feel sets the stage for the final village we walk through today, a village that’s much smaller than that last one. It’s quaint and fairly quiet, and not many people are walking around. Most of the adults are likely still out working in fields on the mountainsides. I look to my left and see a row of about ten one- or two-room houses made of stacked wood. Outside each house is a pile of wood used for cooking and warmth. Snow covers everything in sight. Soon after we enter the village, two boys and a little girl, each of them about eight years old, run out from a house to greet us. The little girl’s face is particularly encouraging to see in light of the young girls missing in the previous village.
Clearly, all three kids are impoverished and malnourished. Their faces are covered with dirt and their clothes are worn. Their smiles are bright, though, and the little girl grabs my hand to walk alongside me. As we stroll along, I think of my daughter, Mara, whom we adopted from a part of Asia not too far from here. Unable to speak this girl’s language, I smile back at her as we playfully walk hand in hand.
I notice how thin she is and can guess she’s hungry. I also remember what Aaron had told us before we left on the trek—how he had specifically advised us not to give out food. He and his team are intentionally addressing holistic needs in these villages, including access to clean water and sufficient food. So if one person starts handing out food to one child, then all sorts of other children would come running and want something—and their parents would come too. In the end, Aaron and his team have found that it’s not beneficial long-term to provide short-term handouts to a few people here and there, creating more problems in the process.
But as we near the end of the village, my new friend—smiling sweetly and holding my hand—sticks out her other hand, as if asking me for something to eat. I have protein bars and trail mix in my bag, and I’m looking into the face of a little girl who needs that food far more than I do. I remember the instructions I was given and start to shake my head slightly, not wanting to say no, all the while trying to keep a smile on my face.
With a pleading look, she sticks her hand out again and says something I don’t understand. I imagine it’s something like, “Please, sir, give me something.”
Again, I shake my head slightly, trying my best to smile. That’s when she raises her voice louder and tries to grab my bag. Reflexively, I turn my bag away so that she can’t touch it. Not only am I not giving this hungry little girl some food, but now I’m physically, intentionally working to keep her from it.
In all of this, she’s still holding on to my hand and we’ve come to the end of the village. The others on the team already have left, and I need to catch up, so I try to let go of her hand, but she won’t let go of mine. She squeezes it—tighter. Now I’m not just keeping my bag from her, but I’m prying my hand away from this impoverished child who has walked with me, holding my hand, smiling at me all the way through her village.
Finally, I pull my hand away and the expression on her face quickly changes. She looks at me with desperate, angry eyes and suddenly tries to spit on me. But she doesn’t have enough moisture in her mouth, so her saliva falls on her face. As she stares at me with her dark eyes, I look back at her with nothing to say. Everything in me wants to give her everything (or at least something!) in my bag, yet I turn and walk away. And I don’t look back.
I walk, fast, but I don’t know why. What am I afraid of? What am I running from? And why do I feel like this?
I preach sermons and write books on giving to the poor. I offer the same counsel that I received about not giving to the few so that the many are left out. I even wrote a foreword to a popular book on wise ways to help people in need without hurting them. Yet at this moment, none of what I’ve taught or written feels right, for on this trail I’m seeing in myself a tragic paralysis in the face of the poor. I’m so quick to say that I don’t think this or that is the wisest way to help the poor and we shouldn’t do or give to this or that project because of this or that reason. And certainly there’s a place for evaluating the wisdom of what we do and how we give.
But at some point, don’t we need to do something instead of running away and giving nothing? Surely I can’t live my life always spouting excuses for why this or that doesn’t work or isn’t wise. Don’t I need to spend my life figuring out what does work and doing it?
Hours later, in the teahouse where we will bunk overnight, I can’t look at myself in the mirror. I can’t look at the same face that a precious, hungry little girl—with saliva on her cheek—saw before I yanked my hand away and ran off with a bag full of food. In that mirror, I don’t want to see a man who can so deftly talk about caring for the poor yet so quickly run away from doing so.
An Eternal Perspective
Exhausted in every way, trying to stay warm in the freezing air, I huddle in my sleeping bag. With my headlamp I read verses from chapters 4–6 in Luke, beginning with this startling announcement from Jesus that it seems God has planned for me to read at this exact moment:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Lk 4:18–19)
As I read, I journal,
This is who Jesus came for! The people in these mountains! In one day, I’ve met the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed. They’re all here! And Jesus, you came to bring good news, freedom, sight, and love to all of them! So why are they missing all these things?
O God, I have so many “why” questions after today. And I don’t know the answers. I also have “what” questions. What should I do in the face of such need? Surely running away is not the answer. Lord Jesus, I want your life in me to bring good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberty to the oppressed, and your favor in the face of urgent physical need.
While he was in one of the towns, a man was there who had leprosy all over him. He saw Jesus, fell facedown, and begged him: “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Reaching out his hand, Jesus touched him, saying, “I am willing; be made clean,” and immediately the leprosy left him. Then he ordered him to tell no one: “But go and show yourself to the priest, and offer what Moses commanded for your cleansing as a testimony to them.”
But the news about him spread even more, and large crowds would come together to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. Yet he often withdrew to deserted places and prayed. (Lk 5:12–16)
Talk about urgent physical need. Leprosy was not just an illness in this story; it was a deadly contagion. Those who had it were required to warn people around them not to get near them. Jewish law forbade touching lepers. So it’s startling to see this man physically approaching Jesus. But what’s even more shocking is Jesus’s response. He doesn’t just speak. He does what others would never do. Jesus touches him. Instead of running from him like everyone else, he reaches out to him like no one else. O God, I don’t want to run from those in need. I want to run toward those in need. Please, O God, forgive me for all the ways I run from the needy instead of to the needy!
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your comfort. Woe to you who are now full, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are now laughing, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all people speak well of you, for this is the way their ancestors used to treat the false prophets. (Lk 6:24–26)
Jesus is promising a pretty massive reversal here. In eternity, many people will find themselves in an opposite condition from their situation on earth. That’s a frightening prospect for the rich who ignore the poor. And I’m the rich.
So God, please help me not to ignore the poor. Please help me to live with an eternal perspective. Please help me to live with your love for the physically poor, hungry, and hurting. O God, I pray for the poor I’ve met today. Please help them! And I pray that you would make my life a means by which those prayers are answered.