The red clay in Tanzania swirls thick and choking when stirred up by passing cars. Rich in iron, the clay coats everything in our clinic. It covers our supplies, our hair, our clothing. The bottoms of our shoes become tinted orange within the first day of work and our tissues are filled with the reddish-orange dust that we blow from our nasal passages each evening.
The first day of clinic the crowds show up. Tanzanians are a quiet culture, with no clamoring for a spot in line. They stand silent and orderly as they wait for hours to be seen by our team. The teenage boy catches my eye that morning. He is dark with bright eyes and a large smile. I notice his legs- swollen and oversized and covered with the clay. He wears shorts and no shoes.
The boy’s name is Christopher.* He attends the church we are assisting and he is an orphan. He survives by living with a local blind man. He has nothing but the shorts and t-shirt he wears. Each day, Christopher comes to the clinic to play and to eat the food provided for church workers. He is too poor to attend school. Our team falls in love with him, despite his dirt and social standing.
An examination of Christopher, along with lab work, shows that his kidneys are failing. A local doctor promises that there is a program for orphans which will provide him with free medical care. The physician on our team leaves her sneakers for Christopher to wear- we receive a picture of him grinning with new bright shoes adorning his swollen feet.
I return home to my children and we resume our daily routine. One day there is a knock at the door. A large, white boy stands on my porch. His hair is messy, his t-shirt stained, and his feet are bare. He is not from our neighborhood. He holds a nerf gun and a toy sword and says he has seen the kids here playing in the yard. Do they want to come out and play? My children agree and the fun begins with this boy named Kevin.*
The day is hot, so I offer freeze-pops. Kevin’s manners are crude. He doesn’t say thank you. He whispers to my 6 year-old that he wants another pop, could she get him one? He says he wants to come in and look at our house. He isn’t lovely.
Kevin returns the next day. And the next. And even though piano lessons and church service prevent my children from playing, Kevin asks for freeze-pops- which I give to him. I sit my children down and explain to them that Kevin isn’t using proper manners. It’s not polite to ask for food. It’s not polite to ask to look inside a stranger’s house. We ought not to act this way, but we will still love Kevin and be kind to him. We will invite him to church (which we do, though his mother declines the invitation.)
I know that if I keep feeding Kevin, he will keep coming back, and for a moment I am annoyed. But then I think of Christopher in Tanzania. Another boy with no shoes. Why is it easier to love a disheveled orphan in a far off land, but the unkempt adolescent in the next neighborhood is a nuisance? Why have we romanticized the call to love; reserving it just for those who sound intriguing? Is an American boy with a family less deserving of freeze pops than an African orphan of shoes? Our call is simply to love.
I Peter 4:8 And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.
Ephesians 4:1-2 I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vacation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love.
*Name has been changed.