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Loving My Neighbors

A life-changing trip showed me they live in West Africa as well as down my block.

I was sitting in the bleachers, watching my daughter Grace play soccer, when my cell phone rang. I assumed it was one of my four other kids checking in.

"Mom, come quick!" It was my daughter Sarah. "I've fallen down the stairs, and there's blood everywhere. I need to see a doctor!"

After asking a friend to take Grace home, I dashed to pick up Sarah and rush her to the doctor. Within an hour, he stopped the bleeding and closed the gash with a neat row of 20 stitches.

As we drove to the pharmacy for antibiotics, I thought about how different my response to a medical emergency had been from that of another mom I'd met just four days earlier. Haoua Seine, who lives in the West African country of Niger, had brought her small son to see me as I visited sponsored children in Talladje, a World Vision development project on the outskirts of Niamey, the capital city.

The boy had a poultice that looked like mashed potatoes stuck to his foot.

"What happened to this little boy?" I asked.

"He fell into the fire," one of the community workers explained.

"Has he seen a doctor? His wound looks badly infected."

"No, his mother's using traditional medicines."

No cell phone plea for help, no frantic drive to the doctor's office. Just a mixture of herbs and the uncertain hope her son would get better.

As I walked around the medical tent, I realized that despite our differences, these young mothers and I share much in common—love for our children, hopes and dreams for their future.

In Niger—a country ranking dead last on the United Nations' Human Development Index— children don't have necessities American mothers take for granted: clean water, education, medical care, adequate food. Located on the edge of the Sahara Desert, the earth's poorest nation depends on the rainy season for survival. But in 2004, it ended early, and with it ended the hope of producing an adequate harvest. On top of drought, a massive locust infestation destroyed what little crops survived. People sold their land and livestock to purchase food. However, in the face of shortages, the price of grain in the marketplace jumped 170 percent, well above what most people could afford. Men moved far from their villages in search of work, and women waited at home without food for their hungry children. The crisis left nearly 800,000 children facing starvation, and more than three million people in critical need of food.

Because my husband works for World Vision, I occasionally travel to countries where the ministry operates to improve the quality of life for impoverished children. But until visiting Niger, I'd never seen starvation.

I began my week-long trip in the village of Doukoukouneye, standing with hundreds of women lined up to receive their monthly rations from a World Food Program distribution administered by World Vision. Because of a flash flood, the only road into the village was wiped out, and the supply truck was detoured. Most of the women waited more than seven hours in temperatures well above 100 degrees to receive their rations—a mosquito net, four bars of soap, and a bag of millet. No one complained.

For the previous four months, these women had had no food for their families except leaves collected from bushes outside the village. Speaking through a translator, a young woman named Mary told me finding enough for just one meal took an entire day. Yet, so far, her two little boys hadn't succumbed to the most common illnesses that affect chronically malnourished children in Niger—diarrhea, pneumonia, malaria, cholera, and measles.

This wasn't the case at an emergency clinic in Maradi, a short distance away. There I talked with Saa Mamane, a 17-year-old mother who brought her 1-year- old son, Sahabi Ibrahim, to the tent where the sickest babies received treatment. Feeding tubes were taped to his nose, and a nurse tried desperately to find a vein to insert an IV. The baby cried, but with no tears. He'd been vomiting for days and was severely dehydrated.

"Why," I asked, "did you wait so long to bring him to the clinic?"

Saa told me she lives too far away to walk with such a sick baby, and until two days before I met her, she hadn't had the 50 cents needed to come by car.

As I walked around the medical tent, I realized that despite our differences, these young mothers and I share much in common—love for our children, hopes and dreams for their future. These mothers' eyes shone with pride in their family and pleasure in knowing their children were the focus of my attention. And, to my amazement, given the circumstances, these mothers' hearts overflowed with clear expectations for their children's future.

"I want my child to be a nurse so he can come back and help our family and our village," Saa Mamane said of her sick little boy, Sahabi. "I want my sons and daughters to go to school. Knowing about the world and learning to speak other languages will make their lives easier than mine."

I visited Niger just two weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. In fact, the last thing I remember hearing before I boarded my plane to West Africa was the airport television blaring CNN's 24/7 coverage of the deadly disaster. No one was paying much attention to Niger. Understandably, all eyes were riveted on the Gulf Coast.

Watching people die on the streets in our own country was agonizing. But that's the kind of tragedy that happens around the world every day. Mudslides destroy entire villages in Guatemala. An earthquake kills more than 80,000 people and leaves millions homeless in Pakistan. Since such catastrophes don't usually happen in the U.S., ignoring them is easy.

But just because it's easy doesn't make it right. tells followers of Jesus that in the same way we're to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, we're also to love our neighbors as ourselves. The parable of the Good Samaritan clearly shows "neighbors" aren't limited to those living next door or around the block. Neighbors also includes women waiting in line for food rations in Niger, survivors in Guatemala, homeless in Pakistan. And we're to follow Jesus' call and stop by the roadside, as the Samaritan did, to help.

When we reach out to our neighbors, not only will their lives change, ours will, too. For me, loving my neighbors meant volunteering to lead an assembly at my children's high school to talk about what I'd seen in Niger. I taught a workshop for studentson why they should care about poverty and despair in places they never knew existed. I spoke on a radio program. And I commandeered a PTA meeting to tell my friends what we can do together to alleviate the suffering of women and children incountries such as Niger.

I want to share what I've learned with other women so that, like the Good Samaritan, we'll begin to look at the world through Jesus' eyes. We'll see the hungry and homeless, the sick and dying not as someone else's problem or responsibility, but as our neighbors. And when, as neighbors, we share our food with the hungry, provide shelter for the poor, break the chains of the oppressed, and clothe the naked, God promises he'll pour out his blessing upon us.

In Niger, and countless places like it around the world, there's no FEMA, no National Guard, and no Department of Homeland Security. There are just suffering children and desperate mothers waiting for us to remember their needs and, in obedience to God's Word, observe the example of the Good Samaritan—and the One who showed us mercy—and "go and do likewise."

Renee Stearns, her husband, Rich, and their five children live in Washington.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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