One of my atheist friends on FB shared a powerful and challenging picture.
The obvious question is, “Where’s God in the despair and devastation that affects so many in the world? And why do we think God is concerned with petty details of our lives while we ignore human tragedy?”
Here’s a bit of an answer to that.
For a few weeks in a row, I’ve been playing the keys for our church band. It’s something I love to do, because 1) I’m good at it, 2) I enjoy it, and 3) helping the congregation worship is exciting. The practice and the early showtime to get ready for two Sunday services means a bit of extra effort during the week. Sunday becomes a long day, almost a day of “work” when everything in me wants a weekend to relax before returning to the office grind on Monday.
The joy of being part of something greater in the band is well worth the hard work. The impact of seeing people abandoned in worship is even more fulfilling. It’s pretty awesome.
But this Sunday, I was reminded how small my focus can be.
We had a guest from India, a missionary who has lived most of his life as an offering for the benefit of others. He shared some powerful stories of how difficult circumstances have brought about tremendous change in the churches of India and in their relationship to their own culture. He talked about God’s heart for the widow and the orphan, and how the Church-at-large has been able to positively touch the lives of those the Indian caste system considers untouchable.
Then he recounted the unexpected events which led to the start of an unconventional ministry. About 15 years ago, one of his associates happened to lead a group of believers into a red light district in their city. The response from the “working women” was overwhelming. But more than commitments and conversions, these women sought assistance that the Christians were not prepared to provide.
The women were victims of human trafficking and the sex trade. They were not in their situation by choice, nor were they free to leave. But they brought out their daughters, small children and infants living in the brothels. The women begged, “Can you take my child away to a safe place? If she stays here, she will grow up as a slave and will be treated the way we have been. Please help us. Please take our children out of here.”
That day, 37 children were brought out of the red light district, and the missionaries started a makeshift shelter with no plan and no idea how to proceed. All they had was the firm conviction that this act of compassion was what God would desire of them.
Soon, they learned the extent of the slavery in the sex trade around them. They learned that in the city there were perhaps two thousand more children just like those they rescued. They discovered that across the country, there are approximately one million young women and children connected to the sex trade as slaves or victims. Their mission focus changed in a flash from simply “reaching the nation” to extending a hand to those in such deplorable conditions.
15 years later, Project Rescue is spread over 6 nations ministering to thousands of victims. At first they tried to buy some of the women out of these brothels, but very quickly saw that the money was going to bring in more young girls. So now, they reach out a hand to HIV positive women and children, providing shelter and recovery, or providing compassion and care to those not yet freed. They have established churches outside the traditional comfort zones of Western Christianity, and they hold Bible studies right in the midst of the red light district. They’ve taken in women who have been mentally and emotionally shattered by daily sexual brutality and physical abuse. Those women are learning job skills and getting new opportunities to escape the hell they’ve known most of their lives.
The small amount of money given by some in our church provides for many of the needs of this ministry and others like it around the world. A mere $20 bought a cheap t-shirt advertising the project website, but that money also paid for the expense of putting one of these women through a college program. I sat overwhelmed next to my teenage daughter, considering that there are a million more young women just as precious and valuable as her, who are suffering abuse and abandonment.
I didn’t have much at the moment, but giving up a $20 bill meant impacting someone’s life around the world in a positive way. The deep need and the vast challenge posed by international sex slavery is beyond me, beyond my church, beyond a logical approach or easy fix. But we must respond as best as we are able, for religious reasons or for simple human compassion.
I was reminded of my time on a medical mission in a rural area of the Philippines, and the poverty and need that I witnessed first-hand. I thought of the streets of Thailand, and the desperation I saw there. I remember the homeless in California and Okinawa, and my wife’s efforts to provide food and warmth where we could.
Some of my atheist friends have discussed this with me in the past. “Why do these missionaries have to go do all this with the religion sales pitch? Why not just do it for the sake of helping out?”
Maybe they’re right. Maybe I shouldn’t need a book to tell me to love others as I love myself or to do for them what I’d want done for me if our situation was reversed. Perhaps I shouldn’t need the excuse that “God said to go.”
Then I look for the massive efforts of atheists and agnostics to reach the poor and needy around the world, and I find them severely lacking. There are organizations, yes. There are people far more compassionate than me, no doubt. But there is not an effort on the scale of the charity work being done by churches around the world to reach into the darkness and pull a hurting soul into the light of day.
Jesus taught that His people would be judged based on their response to Him:
“I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25, MSG)
They ask, “Where were You? When did we see You? When did we do this?” He responds, “Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”
And the converse is true. When we’re the ones doing the overlooking, when we’re turning our eyes from the need and ignoring them, He says we’re ignoring Him.
Should I need this reminder, this solemn warning? I suppose not. But the point is that I am interested in being a part of reaching the overlooked and ignored with practical love that meets their real needs. Can we help everyone and rescue all who suffer? No. But we’ll try, and we’ll reach as many as we can.
When people are suffering, I’m not surprised by the question of “Where was God?” But when people are suffering, for those not doing anything to help, don’t be surprised when I ask “Where were you?”