Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said that "being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, and forgotten is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat. Loneliness is the most terrible poverty."
A few weeks ago I realized how true Mother Teresa's statement was when I and three others from Grace United Methodist Church went to the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in Tanzania. Our experience was part of a larger mission, specifically to the Joy in the Harvest mission in Kigoma. As we spoke to persons in the camp, we learned a great deal about the importance of remembering others and of simply showing up to care.
Approximately 61,000 persons live in the camp. Most come from nearby Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda. Fortunately, with political strife ending, many will be able to leave and return home. Most, however, have lost their livelihoods, including their homes. What comes next is uncertain. Ironically, life in the camp, while difficult, has provided a measure of security.
Our visit to the small United Methodist church in Nyarugusu was eye-opening. The members of the mud-brick church practiced what could only be described as "radical hospitality." The lively worship and visible demonstrations of kindness were truly inspirational. God's empowering grace was tangible and real.
Most inspirational, however, was the letter the pastor read stating how grateful the church was that we had simply come to the camp: "You didn't forget us. Thank you!"
It was a humbling moment. After all, the four of us from Franklin had traveled to Tanzania to do something. We went to accomplish a particular task.
God, however, had other plans! Visiting those who had been forgotten made us remember what was truly important: There is power in remembering who God remembers. There is power in remembering the most vulnerable of God's children. We went to Tanzania with one set of expectations. God had another set!
The experience was life-changing. I say it was life-changing because all too often we can forget how God surprises us by opening doors we may least expect. Too many times we can suffer from amnesia, forgetting what we need to do, or forgetting what is important. I know in my life I can forget where I placed the keys, or worse, forget to pick up the kids! The list is endless.
In a couple weeks many will pause to celebrate Christmas, the day of Christ's birth, the day a refugee family couldn't find shelter in the inn. I think it is safe to say that, at the time, most folks didn't know what had occurred; yes, a few shepherds showed up, and angels sang in glory, but otherwise the night was uneventful. Who would remember such a birth?
Our visit to the Nyarugusu Camp revealed a heart-changing truth: If it seems the world forgets you, take heart; God won't! In fact, God never forgets. No matter how often we forget God or each other, God never forgets us.
It has taken me a while to believe this, but it is true: Forgetting cannot be an option, especially on a continent where millions have perished. God doesn't divide the world between children "there" and "here." Either we all are God's children or we are not. We remember because God does.
Looking back on this experience, I can now understand why the refugees in Nyarugusu welcomed us so generously. Despite physical hunger, there was a deeper hunger: "You cared enough to come." This was the real message they shared. It was also what we needed to hear. It still is, especially now. May we never forget!
I look forward to receiving your comments.