The child that Rachel cradled gazed up at her with a glassy look, offering no expression or emotion. Usually one can read emotion in the eyes. Not so with this child. We had seen this before: the blank, unresponsive eyes; the stark rib cage protruding out from the chest; the bloated and herniated belly; the loose skin hanging off the bones like too much moss hanging off a willow tree. This child was severely malnourished and dehydrated. Statistics and experience told us that this little boy was too far gone and there was nothing we could do.
My gut reaction was one of frustration. I felt like scolding the child’s mother, reprimanding her for such ignorance and neglect. Simple nutritional practice and care could have prevented this travesty. She should have brought the baby to us earlier, when we could have more easily turned the tide of dehydration. Yet now, there was so little hope.
Before I could speak, Rachel looked at me and said, “We have to try. There is always hope with God.” I recalled Jesus’ statement that we are to love the Lord our God with all of our being, and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40). What would I do if this were my child? I would do all I could, even when hope seemed slim. So Rachel and I prayed in Jesus’ name that this child would be healed. We then loaded the mother and child up on my motorcycle, and traveled 15 miles to the nearest clinic. The nurse on duty was not encouraging; in fact, she did a fine job of scolding the mother. I pleaded with the nurse to put the baby on a hydrating IV drip. I prayed again in my soul for the life of this child. And still the child died.
The parents thanked us for our help and our efforts. They said that it was Allah’s will. They said that Allah is great. This left me thinking: “What was accomplished in this for the kingdom of God? What if I had simply preached the gospel to this young family? Would that have been a better use of my time? What did our effort to show mercy accomplish?”
Later that day, these words of Jesus came to me, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Caring for that child was caring for Christ!
As the Church is sent out into the world, we go forth with the proclamation of the gospel. It is still good news. It is still news of great joy. And it is still for all people. But sharing the gospel is more than just verbal proclamation. It is sharing life. As Paul writes about his ministry among the Thessalonians, “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thessalonians 2:8).
If we love God and love our neighbor, mercy ministry is part of who we are. Mercy ministry is kingdom ministry. In mission, we offer the message of Christ, so that people may hear, for faith comes through hearing. But our message is empty of power if it is not accompanied by acts of mercy, for our faith without works is dead.
The heritage of LBIM has exemplified this conviction. Our missionaries have served in China, Cameroon, Chad, Japan and Taiwan—always holding out the right hand of the gospel message along with the left hand of the gospel lived out through mercy ministries.
While translating the Scriptures into new languages that previously had no alphabet, our missionaries taught men, women and children how to read and write. The result: People could discover, hear, study and pass on the Word of God in their own heart languages. When natural disasters such as famines or tsunamis have devastated these communities, our missionaries and our churches have responded.
In communities that are extremely poor and have significant physical needs, our missionaries have responded, not with handouts, but by laboring alongside the people. The goal is always to help people find a sustainable solution that will not end when the missionary is gone. Our missionaries help to cast vision and create multiple primary schools where there were previously none. Also, as a result of missionary teaching, there are now many brick makers, carpenters, electricians, health workers, masons and mechanics.
In Chad and Cameroon, our missionaries have used their health-care skills. Nationals have been trained and outfitted to teach primary health care. Village pharmacies and community hospitals have been established. A leprosarium—a place to care for those afflicted with leprosy—was part of our Cameroonian ministry for years.
We have worked with village cooperatives to develop improved gardening and farming practices. We’ve helped to jump start and train people in small business management. A small revolving loan/micro-finance system has been organized within groups of men and women, resulting in renewable and productive enterprises. Water wells have been placed in communities. The local people have been involved in the process of raising necessary funds for the well, giving them a sense of ownership in the ongoing maintenance of that well.
Why do we do mercy ministry? Not for our sake. Not to pat ourselves on the back and boast about what we have done. All of these acts of mercy are for the sake of our Savior, who came to us in our need and who taught us what mercy is all about. His was the ultimate display of mercy and grace that is still good news of great joy—for all the people. Our acts of mercy serve as a bridge over which the Good News of Jesus travels to them.
Dan Venberg serves as Mission Mobilizer and Recruiter for Lutheran Brethren International Mission.