June of 2010 marked my 26th year of life on earth and it also marked the very first time I ever ventured outside of the United States of America.
Growing up in this country doesn’t really prepare you for many of the realities that the rest of the world faces on a daily basis. At least that was my experience. No amount of National Geographic magazines, cross-cultural documentaries, or guilt-ridden humanitarian infomercials were able to adequately prepare my mind and heart for what I encountered on this short-term mission trip to Cairo, Egypt.
The cultural contrast was jarring from the moment my team and I stepped off the plane. We arrived around three in the morning and quickly discovered why Cairo was nicknamed “the city that never sleeps.” There were men on the sidewalks with rifles in hand, children playing soccer games in the streets, workers driving donkey carts, and many other unexpected sights in the wee hours of the morning.
Throughout the next couple of weeks, we all went through a variety of experiences that I am sure left lasting marks on each of us in different ways. From seeing an impoverished sister in Christ break down in tears for the “privilege” of receiving prayer from us, to ministering to Sudanese refugees who had been forced out of their homeland, each moment is forever etched into my heart and mind. However, there is one moment that stands out from the rest: a moment that brought the full reality of desperation into clear view.
Having just toured a famous Coptic church, our local director decided to take us on a spontaneous stroll through a nearby slum, notoriously dubbed “Garbage City.” To this day I can only assume that his purpose for this detour was to open our eyes to a level of poverty that is unfathomable in our own country. The area gets its name from the fact that its inhabitants quite literally live in, sleep on, and make their livings from garbage.
As we walked the streets, we were all brought to silence by the living conditions that we were witnessing. The smell alone was enough to send someone over the edge. No sewer system. No running water. Just tiny closet-sized “homes” filled with Cairo’s garbage. Not wanting to make the locals feel like a spectacle, at least not any more than they already did, everyone kept a respectful demeanor and smiled as we passed.
Just before we finished our sobering parade through one of the most despondent areas in the world, a little boy ran up to us with a baby in his hands. Curious as to what he was doing I turned and faced him and he immediately placed the infant in my arms, smiled at me, and ran away.
Shock is the only word I can use to describe what I experienced in this moment. Here I stood, in the middle of the street, holding a helpless baby whose inevitable future, if there was one, was the utter hopeless reality that surrounded me.
Not knowing what to do, I turned back toward my team who were all staring at me and the baby in my arms. No doubt experiencing similar feelings, everyone just stood there for a moment trying to process the situation. Breaking the silence, my team leader suggested we head in the direction that the boy ran and locate the parents.
The search didn’t take too long. After only about a block or so, I spotted the boy. He was standing with some other young children and a man who I can only assume was their father. I looked at the man and gestured in a way as to communicate the question, “Is this your baby?” The man looked at me with a smile and stretched out his arms to receive back the infant. After passing over the child I returned the smile, nodded in respect, and turned back to rejoin the group.
To this day, the look on that man’s face is burned into my memory. The smile he gave me wasn’t one of joy or even gladness as he received back his infant child. The smile thinly veiled what seemed to be disappointment, sadness, and perhaps even shame. What had transpired had become painfully obvious: this was a desperate attempt on the part of a father to give his child a hope and a future.
Reflecting back on this moment over five years and two children later, I cannot even begin to imagine what it would be like to be in that man’s position. A position where you believe the best possible thing you can do for your child is to place him into the arms of foreign strangers, hoping that somehow that child will escape the fate that you yourself have been subjected to.
As Americans, most of us don’t have categories in our minds for situations like these. It would be very easy, and it is probably very common, for Americans to live their entire lives without any comprehension of what the majority of the global population faces on a daily basis.
However, as Christians, we cannot allow ourselves to hold to an ignorant worldview that filters everything through the American experience. We must realize that this world has been subjected to absolute bondage due to the curse of sin and our culture does everything it can to mask that reality.
The truth is, we live in a lost and dying world where even living in great abundance is only enough to provide a false sense of hope. The physical desperation experienced by the inhabitants of Garbage City is actually a perfect picture of the spiritual desperation in which the entire world exists.
As recipients of God’s grace, we owe it to those who are lost, living in the mire of their own sin, to bring the only good news that will deliver them out of their hopeless state. Whether they live in Kansas City or Garbage City, there is only one hope:
The Gospel of Jesus Christ.