Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. –James 2:15-17
If you are like me, you have read this Scripture a hundred times. It’s one of the cornerstones upon which World Vision’s ministry is built, calling believers to live out their faith through acts of compassion and generosity.
But once in a while God breathes fresh meaning into His Word, moving it from the realm of our head knowledge into the deepest foundations of our spiritual walk. For me that moment came through an unexpected encounter with an amazing little girl named Joy.
In July 2004, I visited a church in Masaka, Uganda, to watch a play about preventing the spread of AIDS. The building was filled to capacity. Those who could not squeeze into the building crowded in the doorways and peeked through the windows.
As the program began I was surprised to see one little girl break from the doorway and, before the startled eyes of the elders and pastors, walk toward us. She came directly to me and proceeded to kneel at my feet, wordlessly taking my hand. I was both shocked by her boldness and moved by her vulnerability.
The play had begun, but all I was aware of was this one child looking up at me with solemn eyes that seemed to touch my soul. So, I opened my arms, and as though she did it every day, the little girl came up and snuggled contentedly on my lap.
I held her throughout the 35-minute presentation. Several times she coughed — a deep, rattling cough that rumbled all the way down her back. As a mother, I knew that cough and I didn’t like it!
Occasionally, I would stroke her arms as I do my own granddaughter’s when she snuggles on my lap. But this little girl’s arms were rough and scaly. And her little tummy was strangely lumpy under her thin cotton dress.
When I mentioned this to the World Vision staff member seated behind me, he explained that many children in the region suffer from intestinal worms, and this little girl had not yet been treated for this common digestive parasite.
I also noticed that she was not wearing the bright pink school uniform most of the other children wore. When I asked why, I was told that either she was not in school or her family couldn’t afford one. And she was not registered for our sponsorship program.
The play ended and I left the church. We were running behind schedule, and there was no time to talk or find out who my little friend was.
The rest of the day I couldn’t get that little girl out of my mind. I had met a child who was in need, but there were so many needy children. Surely God didn’t expect me to help them all.
That night I barely slept as the image of a little girl in a faded cotton dress kept invading my dreams. As I tossed and turned, the words from James 2:15-17 echoed in my head.
Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
Tears soaked my pillow as I realized that was exactly what I had done. No, I couldn’t help all the children. But this one had come to me. I had felt her lumpy stomach and the fluttering beat of her heart. I had seen this child’s need, and I knew how to do something about it.
The next morning I arranged to add this little girl to our World Vision family of sponsored children. Her name was Joy. She lost her parents to AIDS and was being raised by an elderly grandmother.
For the next six years my husband and I helped her go to school (in a bright pink dress) and get the medical care she needed. While our sponsorship ended when World Vision completed its work in her community, my husband and I still consider her part of our family and pray for her every day.
I also believe that Joy will never forget us or the day that God gave her the courage to reach out to a total stranger who was destined to help change her life. God used her to show me how easy it is to walk away — and how incredibly wonderful it is to choose not to.